Themes: Gender Identity, Bullying, Friendship
Audience: Young Adult
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Released: February 2, 2016
This book certainly has a lot of merit. Jeff Garvin was inspired to write Symptoms of Being Human following a conversation with his family, in which he discovered none of them had heard of the concept of genderfluidity. His hope was, in creating a genderfluid main character and showing him/her confronting the challenges they would likely face in their day-to-day life, it would provide an education to those unfamiliar with the term. For the most part, I think he succeeded.
I found the protagonist incredibly easy to relate to. I’m a sucker for the prickly, brooding type, and this proved no exception. All Riley wants is to be able to express their gender identity without fear of rejection. Yet, with their dad running for congressman in an extremely conservative area, image is everything and leaves no room for Riley to be who they are. Riley’s only emotional outlet is their blog, where, under a pseudonym, they’re able to be open about their feelings and daily struggles.
I really connected with the supporting characters in this novel as well. I adored gentle giant Solo for his compassion and openness to understand Riley’s gender identity, which initially seemed at odds with his jock status. Actually, the romantic in me hoped he and Riley might get together. That said, I couldn’t help but love Bec, too. Her warmth and non-conformist quirkiness was a breath of fresh air, and the developing romance between her and Riley was beautiful to watch.
One narrative decision the author made which I agreed with was not to reveal the gender Riley was assigned at birth, since this would have been irrelevant both to Riley’s character and the plot. Sometimes Riley feels more female, sometimes more male, and so the gender they were born with is unimportant. Of course, this portrayal of genderfluidity is perhaps over-simplified and doesn’t reflect the reality of many genderfluid individuals, but as an introduction to the idea, I believe the novel serves its purpose.
This book touches on a whole range of issues—gender identity, anxiety, bullying, politics, and the desire for acceptance. Nevertheless, contrary to what you might expect, it is by no means a heavy read. It’s essentially a story about finding the courage to be yourself, about learning to rise above the prejudice and intolerance to stand up for the things that matter to you. The journey may not have been without difficulty, but it ultimately left me feeling uplifted and with a smile on my face.
For a heartwarming coming out novel that explores the experience of one genderfluid teenager with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin gets 8/10 rainbows.
About the Book
The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?
Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. The thing is…Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in uber-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s so-called “normal” life.
On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s REALLY like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything.
About Jeff Garvin
Jeff Garvin is an author, musician, and actor. His debut novel, Symptoms of Being Human, is an ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection, a Lambda Literary Award Finalist, a Goodreads Choice Semifinalist, and garnered starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. Before becoming a novelist, Jeff acted on TV and toured as the lead singer of a rock band. He has a BFA in Film from Chapman University and lives in Southern California.