‘What We Left Behind’ heavy on angst, light on romance

Years from now, it’ll all seem so sweet.

There’ll always be a soft place in your heart for your first kiss, your first I-love-you and for the person who gave them to you. You’ll never forget the electricity of holding hands or the rush of being together even after, as in the new novel “What We Left Behind” by Robin Talley, you start to pull apart.

Gretchen Daniels wasn’t sure why she didn’t tell her girlfriend Toni that they’d be attending college in different cities.

Last spring, Toni applied to Harvard, and Gretchen applied to Boston University — same city, opposite ends — both reasoning that they could at least spend weekends together. At the last minute, though, Gretchen decided to attend NYU.

She didn’t tell Toni until the night before she left.

They were juniors in their all-girl high school when Toni first saw Gretchen at a dance and was instantly in love. Everybody thought they were the cutest couple: Gretchen conferred upon Toni a newfound popularity. Toni taught Gretchen what it was like to be genderqueer — or, at least she tried.

But the secret that Gretchen held all summer bugged Toni, and she was rightfully upset. She really didn’t have much to say to Gretchen, a silence complicated by Toni’s immersion into a campus group she joined. Freshmen weren’t allowed to be officers of the Undergraduate BGLTQIA Association, but upperclassmen let her hang out with them and, under their tutelage, she began to explore labels for herself. She began to think about gender fluidity and transitioning.

Toni’s lack of communication baffled Gretchen, and she discussed it at length with her new BFF, Carroll, a gay man who loved New York as much as did Gretchen. He was just one of the new friends she’d acquired, but she missed Toni and the closeness they had. She didn’t quite understand why Toni was questioning so much about herself, and she wasn’t sure how she’d fit in her girlfriend’s life if Toni became Tony. Would that change, change everything?

Better question: By the end of this book, will you care?

I have my doubts.

“What We Left Behind” is very, very slow; in fact, it sometimes seemed to me that it was twice as long as its 416 pages of overly detailed, same-old dialogue and young adults who were way too angst-y for my tastes. Yes, these kids do things that only increase the melodrama among themselves, which is ultimately not all that interesting but which creates an uneasiness in plot, making most of Talley’s characters mighty unlikeable.

And yet, I persevered. I was hoping to learn something from Toni’s gender-questioning. What I got instead was an abundance of language that seemed rather clinical and not always clear. Was that the point? Shrug.

Romance readers may find a tiny smidge of amour here, if they’ve the time to look for it, but I really wasn’t a big fan of this book. For the most part, I think, “What We Left Behind” is a title that should be heeded.

— View publishes Terri Schlichenmeyer’s reviews of books for children and teens weekly.

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