Book Review: Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Goodreads Description: 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.
My Review: Before I get started, some terminology to make this review clear AF. During this review, I will refer to Riley, the main character of Symptoms of Being Human, as they/them. Riley does not express what their preferred pronoun is in the book, but "they/them" is a pronoun many non-binary people use when they want to avoid gendering themselves. When I talk about gender, I mean gender identity (how we express our gender), and when I talk about sex, I mean the biological sex (genitals) you were born with.
Gender takes a front seat in Symptoms of Being Human, the story of a genderfluid teen coming to terms with their identity. The book takes an interesting approach to non-binary characterization by purposefully not revealing the main character, Riley's, sex. The author uses first person POV and avoids any gendered language, reducing the chance of a reader approaching Riley with their own assumptions on gender and roles. By doing so, the reader focuses on Riley as a person, with their sex and gender as a secondary focus. I've never read a book before where the main character's gender was not outwardly stated. It was an eye opening experience to see how establishing gender also establishes a huge list of expectations and assumptions, even when we don't realize we're applying them. It's a good reminder that none of us are immune to the 'programming' we receive from society. I identify as genderfluid and have considered using they/them pronouns, so I've understandably got a lot of feelings about this book. Hopefully I can get them all down coherently.
To start, Symptoms is all around a great story. Though it tackles a lot of hard issues, such as gender non-conformity, suicide, and sexual assault, it keeps a light-hearted tone that makes it a pleasant read. Even during heavier chapters, I didn't feel weighed down or depressed by the events, probably because Riley doesn't spend a lot of time ruminating on the bad. It is well-balanced with a lot of happy scenes, making this feel like the story of a normal kid with ups and downs as opposed to a kind of tragedy. The scene where Riley first comes out was so beautiful and supportive that it filled me with warm fuzzies down to my toes. It is now probably one of my favorite scenes in queer YA lit.
A lot of Symptoms' strength lies in its characters. The author clearly had a solid grasp of the characters before he even started writing, as they were so well-formed. Riley had little interests and quirks thrown in that didn't affect the story, but added depth to the character, showing that they were more than what was presently happening to them. I found the feeling of "otherness" with Riley and Bec really authentic. It's a feeling that many YA writers try to touch on, but which can often come across as fake or forced; a reason for the main characters to be the underdog rather than creating characters that truly are different-- and get singled out for it. I was really excited to see how the "villain" characters were handled as well. The bullies at school were jerks, without question. They viciously went after Riley for no reason other than Riley stuck out as different-- and not an easy to swallow difference, either. Riley's gender was something they couldn't comprehend, and so their confusion turned to anger, which is very true to the real world. More so, we get to see a bit of the bullies' backstories to understand why they act the way they do. Rather than presenting it as justification or an excuse for how they treat Riley, it's used to contextualize their behaviour.
Alright, now to the meat of this review: all that queer stuff. As I mentioned earlier, the premise of the book is that neither the reader-- nor, it seems, most of the characters-- know if Riley was born a girl or a boy. From a reader's perspective, this was amazing. We were able to strip away assumptions and focus on how Riley saw themself rather than how the reader saw them. However, when it comes to the characters within the story, keeping Riley's gender secret didn't make much sense. Very few people in the world are truly "androgynous," and most people will assume a gender before accepting an "I don't know" answer, whether or not they're correct. I'm sure many non-binary people would kill to be able to look truly androgynous, but that's not the world we live in. We often have one trait or another that people connect with a gender (adam's apple = man, curves = woman) and so even hinting at those traits cause people to assume a gender. The reason I say this is a problem is that non-binary people face a host of expectations, especially from transphobic people. They assume your sex denotes your gender which denotes your behaviour, and when you break out of that chain, the non-binary person is seen as doing something wrong and must be corrected. So you will have parents who try to get them to dress a certain way, peers who will tell them they can/cannot have certain interests, teachers/adults/strangers will bar them from certain activities or areas, etc, all based around gender roles. Those expectations can be overwhelming and can be a bigger problem than outright bigotry, as even allies can come in with expectations and unconscious biases. So while not knowing Riley's sex was hugely beneficial to the reader, it also left this gaping hole in the story where Riley doesn't have to deal with this issue that many non-binary people do. This also led to a lot of confusing scenes with Riley's parents. We get the feeling in those scenes that their parents do have gender expectations for Riley. As much as they're trying to be supportive, they feel Riley shouldn't be "dressing this way," but don't give any indication of what they want from their child. It led to a "tip of the tongue" feeling where the parents are always about to say something, but never do because the author doesn't want to "out" Riley's sex.
Despite how hard the author tried to remain impartial on Riley's sex, there were many hints that came through that led me to believe that Riley was born a boy. This was no doubt due to the author's own experiences bleeding through, but it makes me wonder if the publisher utilized non-binary sensitivity readers who were born female to check over the book to truly make it more neutral and cover up these slip ups. What led me to believe Riley was born male were a lot of tiny details: Riley's constant reluctance to wear dresses (this one is negotiable, but as it was presented more like Riley wanted to wear a dress but was scared to, it made me think Riley was used to having male expectations pushed on them), all the "pieces" in their formal binary outfit (some dresses do come in parts, but it sounded more like all the pieces from a suit), Riley had a crush on a boy who rejects them because "it's weird" whereas their relationship with Bec takes off without issue (even when it's stated Bec's only connection to the Q or queer group is her trans sister), etc. These were so subtle that most readers will not see them, but as a non-binary person who has grown up with "female expectations," the differences in expectations stand out like they were highlighted.
Finally, I have to take issue with the fact that sexual orientation was not touched on at all. There was some mention where Riley stated that his parents thought genderfluid was being "bisexual," and while Riley does refute that a little, the book doesn't touch on sexual orientation whatsoever. I understand the intent was to focus on gender identity and not confuse the two, but I felt it would have been beneficial, especially to younger readers who might not be as familiar with these terms, to establish and explain the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. As well, since Riley does get into a relationship through the book, it actually feels necessary to touch on. If the book didn't have any romance and focused solely on Riley's coming out and everything else happening, then there would be no need to talk about Riley's sexual orientation. But since the book does go to romance, avoiding the topic feels like the author is trying to have his cake and eat it too by giving Riley the benefits of a relationship without tackling any hard questions. How does Riley view their sexual orientation? Do they see themself as gay? Straight? Bisexual? Many genderfluid people have different ideas of how to treat their sexual orientation due to their fluctuating gender, and it would have been helpful to see how that piece helps to complete the puzzle that is Riley.
Overall, my concerns for this book were very minor, and mostly focused on the queer representation. As I identify as non-binary, this book was super important to me, which means I'm going to nit-pick like crazy. So much in this book hit strong, deep chords I didn't know were in me before. I laughed, I cried, and I fell in love with Riley, who was a reflection of me but also very different from me. As a child, I never would have imagined a book like this was even possible and it really makes me believe in a future where every kid can actually be who they are without abuse. Symptoms of Being Human belongs in the hands of every gender-questioning kid. Hell, it should be given to kids who aren't gender-questioning too. Because Rileys exist everywhere and we're tired of hiding.
TL;DR: 5/5 stars. Caught between coming out and closing down, Riley struggles to make sense of a fluid gender identity and the people who seem more concerned by what's in their pants than in their head.