Book Review: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Posted March 7, 2016 by Lori in Books, Reviews / 0 Comments Tags:


I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff GarvinSymptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Published by HarperCollins on 2016-02-02
Genres: Bullying, LGBT, Social Issues, Young Adult
Pages: 352
Format: ARC
Source: the Publisher
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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 was not even really on my radar until the lovely people at Harper sent me an ARC and the cover grabbed my attention. Plus, as someone who knows very little about gender fluidity, the tagline also caught my attention. The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl? In our society, yes, it is. We’re all conditioned from birth to think that gender is black or white, one or the other, pink or blue. And if someone doesn’t fit into that, if a little girl’s favorite color isn’t pink or a little boy doesn’t like monster trucks, if people can’t categorize someone, they tend not to like it. But as society changes and, hopefully, becomes more accepting, that will change too. And I think books like this will help.

As a non gender fluid person, there are obviously parts of this book that I won’t be able to say whether they’re a realistic representation of a gender-fluid person’s experiences but I can say that it was easy to feel sympathy for Riley and to connect with many of the feelings Riley had throughout the book. I think we’ve all felt like we didn’t belong at some point or didn’t feel entirely comfortable in our own bodies, especially as teenagers. Our personal experiences are all different, and Riley’s of course present their own problems because of the added prejudices faced, but overall some of the feelings Riley experienced are easy for everyone to identify with. And that’s why I think this book will be able to appeal to so many people. Not only will we be able to learn more about something few of us have dealt with but we’ll also be able to connect with Riley and the feelings of self-doubt and loneliness and uncertainty that we’ve all felt. Riley shows us that we should all learn to be proud of ourselves and live the lives we want. That there are always people out there like us. Riley also teaches us that sometimes the best way to learn more about ourselves is to focus less on ourselves and our daily problems and instead focus more on helping others. By finding something to fight for, we can find a purpose and friends and somewhere that we might belong. And sometimes just being able to focus on something other than our own problems is enough to keep going for one more day.

I know a lot of people will probably want to know Riley’s sex. But Garvin actually writes the entire book without using any gender specific pronouns when referring to Riley, because Riley is gender-fluid and doesn’t identify with one specific gender. We never learn what Riley’s sex was at birth and it’s never explicity discussed, either. And I think it was kind of genius. Because people will wonder. And then they’ll be forced to think about that and the fact that this book is specifically saying that it doesn’t matter.

I do want to mention a few things I didn’t love about this book because it wasn’t a five start read for me. First of all, Riley was too concerned with if the girl liked her or not and kept going back and forth about it and that kind of inner monologue annoys me no matter who the character is. Also, a few things came together for Riley easier than I think they maybe should have, especially in regards to the blog and the connections it opened for Riley. There are definitely parts that aren’t easy and I don’t want to give anything away I just felt like a few pieces came together easier than was realistic. Also, there was some cyber bullying going on and who was doing it was suppose to be a mystery but I figured it out rather early on. Which says a lot because I almost never guess right in regards to things like this. So I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t more of a mystery. I also felt like there were a few pieces of the story that didn’t quite come together in the end as tightly as I would have liked. Just a line here or there that something had happened when I wanted a real explanation about why. But these are all minor things, even if it doesn’t seem like it, that just kept me from falling completely in love with the book. I still highly recommend it.

Overall this book was really eye-opening for me. I knew pretty much nothing about gender-fluidity before reading this book and while I won’t take a work of fiction as fact and I know being gender fluid isn’t the same for everyone, it was interesting to read about one character’s experience with it. Also, an author who can take a character who you think you won’t be able to relate to at all and creates a connection between them and you, has done something very special and has hopefully opened people’s mind a bit and shown that at the core, we’re all the same, all just trying to live our lives. And Riley is a great example for so many of us. But fair warning, this book isn’t easy to read. There are many trigger warnings for this one including suicide, bullying, abuse, and sexual assault. In the end, it’s a heartbreaking but hopeful book about finding yourself. I hope people will read it and maybe learn something from it.

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