Review of Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

22692740Rating: 5/5

Published: February 2nd, 2016 by Balzer + Bray

Length: 352 pages

Genre: YA, contemporary, LGBTQIA

Source: Borrowed from the library

Amazon | B&N | Goodreads

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.

This book exceeded just about every expectation I had for it. I had heard some other bloggers say good things about it so I thought I would like it, but I was not expecting it to become one of my favorites. Once I started reading though, I couldn’t get enough of Riley’s story and I devoured this book in two days (which is pretty good considering how slowly I’ve been reading the past few weeks).

 

Our main character, Riley, is a gender fluid teenager. What this means is that sometimes Riley feels like a boy, sometimes feels like a girl, and sometimes feels somewhere in between. I’m not gender fluid and therefore am not really the best person to say whether or not the representation was done well or felt real, but based on what (admittedly, little) knowledge I have of being gender fluid, Garvin did a great job of portraying gender fluidity.

There were a few things that I really appreciated in his portrayal of Riley. First of all, Garvin emphasizes the fact that being gender fluid feels different for different people. When Riley explains what it’s like to be gender fluid, they say things like “this is what it’s like for me, but other people experience it differently.” Despite the fact that we only get to know what being gender fluid is like for Riley, we can still see how Riley’s experience is not the only way to be gender fluid. Secondly, we never find out what gender Riley was assigned at birth. This was something I loved so, so much. Riley tells other prying characters that it’s none of their business. It doesn’t matter. So why should the reader know? I loved this so much. Pronouns are never used to refer to Riley (I’ve used they/them in the review for the sake of trying to be gender neutral). Even when they’re putting on clothes that are being described as making them feel dysphoric (i.e. making them uncomfortable with their body), we don’t know if it’s a dress or something more masculine.

symptoms 1

Another great thing about this book was that it addressed so many issues that the LGBTQIA community, especially those who are trans or gender non-conforming, face such as violence, sexual assault, bullying, depression, etc. Garvin found a fantastic way of incorporating some statistics into the story and making it still fit with the story.

There’s also a great deal of anxiety and depression dealt with in the book. A lot of this stems from Riley’s difficulty accepting being gender fluid and being accepted by others. I really liked that anxiety and depression were incorporated and how they were incorporated. I liked that it was included because many people who identify as LGBTQIA do struggle with things like anxiety and depression, often because of societal views that make it hard for them and others to accept their identity. Not only do we see Riley go to a therapist, but we also see them use the techniques the therapist suggests when they start to feel anxious or overwhelmed. I loved this. It’s rare that therapists are portrayed positively and I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where a character actively describes using the techniques. Riley also takes medication for anxiety and there’s no bogus medication-shaming which has become too common when people take medication for mental illnesses.

The one negative thing I have to say is something that I’ve seen trans people complain about not specifically for this book, but just in general. Pretty much every trans character uses a name that’s very similar to the name that they were given when they were born. For example, there’s a trans woman who was given the name Mike and now goes by Michelle. Small complaint, but I figured I’d put it out there since trans people have said that this is an annoying thing to do.

This review is already quite long and I could keep going on and on but I’ll just say one more thing. I really, really loved the relationship between Bec and Riley. I loved how supportive and understanding Bec was towards Riley, especially when they needed it the most. It was such a great friendship and felt real to me. The witty banter and sarcasm they exchanged felt like an actual friendship between two teenagers.

Anyway, for the sake of not boring you all to death with a way-too-long review, I’ll stop here. Just know that this is a fantastic book and I highly recommend it to everyone, regardless of what you typically read. Chances are you’ll love it and you’ll learn something new.

Star Rating

Edit 4/10/17: I just came across a review by a demiguy, who is undoubtedly more qualified to speak on trans experiences than I am, which points out some problems with this book. Check it out here.


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