- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Balzer + Bray (February 2, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0062382861
- ISBN-13: 978-0062382863
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 160 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #88,721 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Symptoms of Being Human Hardcover – February 2, 2016
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From School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—After a more than unpleasant experience at a Catholic high school, Riley Cavanaugh, whose father is a conservative congressman, is looking for a fresh start at Park Hills High. However, when a new classmate spots Riley and asks, "Is that a girl, or a guy?" Riley quickly gets pegged as an "it." Though the protagonist wakes up some mornings feeling more like a girl and other mornings feeling more like a boy and would prefer to dress in a manner that reflects this, Riley must present as androgynously as possible in order to avoid negative attention. Riley is genderfluid but must keep it a secret in order to keep up appearances for their father's political campaign. Taking the suggestion of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog about what it's like to be genderfluid. The blog quickly accumulates followers. But when a reader discovers Riley's identity and starts to make threats, Riley must decide if they are ready to come out as the blog's author. Garvin is skilled at truly encapsulating the feeling of being completely without allies in high school. The isolation is palpable in every scene. Garvin's strengths also lie in his ability not to reveal the assigned gender of Riley without turning it into some sort of trick or novelty. Riley is not just genderfluid: Riley is witty, has a charming sense of humor, is a skilled writer, and is totally capable of getting the girl. Very few YA titles have featured protagonists like Riley, who don't fit into the black and white of the gender binary. VERDICT Recommended for any library that serves a teen population.—Ingrid Abrams, Town School Library, NY
“Riley is a smart, funny, sharp-eyed force” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“One of the first YA books to deal with the complex issue of gender fluidity…Riley’s emotional life and personal growth shed welcome light on a hitherto obscure subject.” (Booklist (starred review))
“Vibrantly imagined…a welcome mirror for gender-fluid teens.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“With a main character who truly deserves to be called unique, combined with heartbreak and triumphs that are universal, this unforgettable book made me laugh, and also cry: Garvin’s powerful new voice rocks!” (Lissa Price, international bestselling author of Starters)
“Riley Cavanaugh is a sharp, funny, powerful voice for those who haven’t quite found theirs yet. Both highly entertaining and highly necessary, Symptoms is the kind of book that makes you a better human for having read it. I loved it.” (Dahlia Adler, author of Under the Lights and Just Visiting)
“A moving portrayal of what it means to be different, yet the same, all at once. Jeff Garvin has written a beautifully thoughtful book.” (Renee Ahdieh, author of The Wrath and the Dawn)
“An important introduction for readers who know little about gender fluidity and a welcome nod to those who may be experiencing similar feelings.” (Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books)
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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?” Our first glimpse into our POV character Riley’s mind is an observation, presented almost as an accusation. The answer to that question is, “Both or Neither.” Riley is gender fluid, and about to start an anonymous blog, on the advice of a therapist (Dr. Anne), to vent the pent up feelings that inevitably arise from that identity, while living in a very binary society, especially when you add high-school and a prominent political family into the mix.
We get to ride around in Riley’s head, facing parents who just don’t get it, braving the first day transferring to a new school, and walking what is described as “The Gauntlet” through an unfriendly lunch area every day. The real and imagined judgements of the outside world rain down upon us. We meet other outcasts, such as Solo, the nerd turned jock, whose sheer size shifted his social standing, and the “mysterious” Bec, who Riley constantly tries to define as “friend” or “more-than-friend,” with all the requisite teenage angst and self-deprecation.
We, as it turns out, have been invited to walk in on Riley at a very transformative and eventful time in life. In fact, though the story takes place over a really short span, maybe only a month or two, Riley has some life altering experiences in that time, some more traumatic than others.
There was a lot to like about this book.
Riley is a fully realized and relatable character, and a hopeful, anxious, flawed, but very human face for gender fluidity, an often misunderstood and still underrepresented demographic. Because non-binary gender is messy, complicated and controversial, it becomes hard to talk about, but there are many teenagers like Riley who NEED to talk about it, and need to see it being talked about… if nothing else to be reassured that it exists outside of their own heads, that it is real and happening, that they are not alone.
Jeff Garvin also manages to write a very apt description of functioning with anxiety. His descriptions of Riley’s impending anxiety attacks, or of the low level buzz of daily anxiety, like a headful of wasps, was just very in tune with my own experiences of dealing with anxiety, being claustrophobic in a crowded room, being overwhelmed by sensory input when your anxiety level is high, like loud sounds or bright lights being almost too much to handle. It seemed to be written by someone who really understood what being (just barely) functionally anxious feels like.
It is a book that is very much designed to address issues, but I didn't feel like it forgot about its characters in the process… and (to directly contradict a few reviews that I skimmed after writing this) I never felt it lost the thread of story. Riley is a gender fluid teen in a world where that is not really very understood, so Riley spends a lot of time educating the reader on gender and gender politics, subtly and sometimes really not so subtly, but we are also learning about who Riley is as a human, more than as an example of someone gender fluid. In the end we get to find out, as Riley does, what kind of person Riley is going to be-- seperate from labels like boy, girl, gay, straight, advocate… or victim. I was surprised so many people felt there was no story here. I feel, in a coming of age story, the character development is the story. So, maybe the plot wasn't always in-your-face apparent, but I don't think it is fair to say it was altogether absent.
There were a few things that I did struggle with, though.
Garvin makes a conscious choice to never reveal Riley’s sex or birth-assigned gender. The point, of course, is that it doesn’t matter because it is divorced from who Riley is. The character Riley is not a boy or a girl. There are no pronouns used. Nobody refers to Riley as the congressman’s son or daughter. When Riley is having moments of gender dysmorphia, or even of attraction to a crush, Riley’s inner monologue never mentions any body parts that might give anything away. Riley describes the gendered clothes that must be worn as the “campaign costume,” and there is never any detail about what they look like or what gender they are enforcing. There is a sort of defiance in this, mirroring and matching Riley’s own defiance and verbal insistence on more than one occasion that it doesn’t matter what genitalia Riley has. And it is of course none of anyone’s business... But there is also something calculated and false about the way it is concealed from the reader. We aren't just a random observer on the street or an anonymous reader of Riley’s blog, we are supposed to be inside the character’s head and this piece of information, that Riley knows and is in fact struggling with, is just absent. For example, when Riley mentions feeling very feminine around Bec… something about Bec turns Riley’s “gender-dial” all the way to female...If Riley’s sex is male, I feel like, Riley is going to be aware of having a penis. To me, that seems like potentially a huge source of gender dysphoria. If Riley is feeling masculine, getting dressed in a way that doesn’t feel too feminine while having to deal with breasts that need flattened down or with menstruation… I feel like those things actually matter. Not revealing Riley’s physical sex or birth-assigned gender or the role Riley’s parents expect Riley to be performing in...it just almost feels like the author doesn’t trust us with the information, and at some points you can feel the intention in it. I understand why Garvin did it, but it was a stumbling block for me in connecting with the character.
The other thing for me, which I am aware is petty, were just a couple of typos. I make typos you make typos. It happens...but a missing word or using a mistaken word pulls me out of the story for a minute, and then I have to try to reconnect. And typos in a published work, to me, just seem careless on the part of the editing and publishing teams.
And this has nothing to do with anything… but my book has a weird “haircut.” The pages are not cut evenly in a section and stick out beyond the cover at an angle… literally like an asymmetrical haircut. Which isn't really a negative or a positive, except the pages got all bent in shipping and it makes it hard to fit neatly on the bookshelf without dog-earring them further. It's kind of a round peg in a square hole world situation… which I suppose is apt for the novel.
Do I recommend this book? I do. It's weird because scanning other reviews, my likes and dislikes seem to be backwards to the other reviewers, my stumbling block was their favourite feature. So, as with anything, it is simply a matter of taste.
So, at last, let me throw this book on my two rating scales invented for this project.
The first scale I've decided to dub the Queer Counterculture Visibility Scale. It measures how I personally feel this book shines a light on less visible members of the community.
Riley is a white upper-middle-class teenager, so Garvin isn't scoring high points right out of the gate, but a POV character that is gender fluid gets a lot of credit on my scale. Garvin also has a teensy little bit of diversity in his side characters. One of the first people Riley befriends is described as brown, and later as Samoan. Riley also interacts briefly with a variety of different transgendered and genderqueer characters. I'm going to weigh it in at:
4 out of 5 stars
If only because gender fluidity has been underrepresented, thus far.
The second scale I’m just going to call the Genre Expectation scale, and it rates whether this book falls above, below, or pretty much bog-standard for expectations of the genre.
This is a young adult, coming of age/ coming out story… and it does what it says on the tin. No genre bending revelations, or spectacular story twists. I think it's a perfectly enjoyable example of its genre.
3 out of 5 stars.
It met my expectations.
I enjoyed Riley, Solo, and Bec. I enjoyed the fact we never actually find out Riley's biological sex...whether a boy or girl. That truly drives home the point the author is trying to make...Riley is neither, and both. I enjoyed the way the book utilized Riley's blog to educate the readers about gender fluidity.
Overall, a quick, informative, well-done read.
With this book, I actually learned a few things. Being gender fluid is confusing enough for people experiencing it, so it's nice to have it explained to those unfamiliar with the concept. Garvin does a good job of making Riley's character easy to relate to, clearing out a path through the confusion and bullying and teen angst to empathy.
One of the key passages that makes succinct sense: "The world isn’t binary. Everything isn’t black or white, yes or no. Sometimes it’s not a switch, it’s a dial. And it’s not even a dial you can get your hands on; it turns without your permission or approval." That can apply to pretty much all sexuality.
I'd subtract points for the story, which at times can be frustrating because very little happens at various points when Riley is spinning his/her wheels. But the conclusion is satisfying enough that I'd recommend this. And I don't think this is a spoiler, for those wondering if Riley is a boy or a girl? None of yer damn business!
It's the first I've read with a gender fluid character as the front and center protagonist, and even as someone who feels like she has a fairly decent understanding of non binary identities, this book actually taught me a lot. I loved the decision to never reveal what gender Riley was assigned at birth (although honestly there was one part that almost jolted me out of the book since I really felt it did tell us) and it does such a great job of explaining anxiety and how attacks can form and present themselves, as well as how life can be a nonstop hell for people even when things seem to be okay on the outside. I'll be checking out anything this author writes.