Symptoms of Being Human

/ posted in: General Symptoms of Being HumanSymptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Published by Balzer + Bray on February 2nd 2016
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 352
Format: eBook
Source: Library
Goodreads
Setting: California

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.


Riley is a congressman’s child in a conservative part of California.  The congressman is pushing for educational reform so Riley is taken out of private school and put in a public one for the first time.  First day jitters are worse because Riley is gender fluid and is unsure of how to present on the first day of school.  Within minutes of arriving at school, Riley overhears people guessing, “Is that a boy or a girl?” and one person decides to use “It” instead of any pronoun.

As part of Riley’s therapy after a suicide attempt, the psychologist recommends starting a blog.  The second post goes viral.  (Yeah, right.)  Riley becomes an online star and eventually is outed publicly.  It is a huge problem because Riley’s parents didn’t know.

An interesting aspect of the book is that the gender that Riley was assigned at birth is never stated.  The author never uses any pronouns to refer to Riley.  I’m extra impressed by this because it was hard to write this review without pronouns, let alone a whole book.  (Some reviews I’ve read have taken issue with this because pronouns are a difficult part of life for some people.)

This is a very character driven novel.  Riley and friends are the focus more than the plot.  Bec is a new friend at school.  She’s a social outcast and she’s in a band.  She befriends Riley and becomes a potential love interest.  Solo is a former outcast turned athlete who befriends Riley.  This causes tension with his friends on the football team.

There is a lot of violence and abuse hurled at Riley in the book.  Several characters have either committed suicide or have attempted.

Symptoms of Being Human does a great job of introducing gender fluidity to an audience who may not be familiar with the term.  The author is not gender fluid but obviously did a lot of research into the subject.  I’ve only seen one review by a person who identified as being gender fluid on Goodreads and that was a positive review for the book.  The feel of this book reminds me a lot of None of the Above.  The intent of the book is to educate on the subject.  Large information dumps don’t bother me at all but some people get annoyed by it.

I think this book is a good one for people to read especially if they aren’t familiar with gender fluidity.  Riley has a unique voice and perspective on the world.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
  • Books Set in North America
  • LBGTQ authors/characters