{Review} Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

{Review} Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff GarvinSymptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Published by Balzer & Bray on February 2, 2016
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 352
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5 Stars

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.

***Our Thoughts***

The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?

This first sentence of Jeff Garvin’s debut novel, Symptoms of Being Human, is as potent and thought provoking as the rest of this incredible book. This book is for anyone on the LGBTQIA spectrum; it’s for any parent, teacher, PERSON, wishing to get a deeper understanding on the complicated and complex subject of gender fluidity. Symptoms is powerful without being preachy, entertaining without melodrama, and by the end you will have definitely learned something you didn’t know when you began.

The 411:

Symptoms of Being Human is a novel about finding your voice, claiming your identity, and learning to love who you are both inside and outside.

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What We Loved:

Riley. Riley. RILEY! Riley is a genderfluid teen who is at once fierce yet vulnerable. Brave yet fears rejection from parents, friends, and the world at large. It’s been a long time since we’ve read a character as complex and multi-faceted as Riley Cavanaugh. Jeff Garvin did an excellent job of portraying, both by actions and inner-monologue, the complexities of struggling with gender identity. The paralyzing anxiety of merely deciding what to wear every morning. The awkwardness of simple introductions. The soul-deep, painful realization that you’re “other”. The desperate wish to be accepted for you who are. Riley approaches each of these situations and more with a genuineness that will pull at your heartstrings and at times leave you uncomfortable.

Am I a boy, or am I a girl?

Don’t worry. I’m used to it; it’s the first thing everyone wants to know—even when I’m standing right in front of them. And even if they don’t come right out and ask, I can tell they’re thinking it, because they narrow their eyes or tilt their heads slightly to one side. At best, it’s invasive curiosity; at worst, open condemnation. Either way, they want an answer: boy or girl.

Anyway, it’s not that simple. 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.

Riley isn’t perfect and at times is judgmental and makes assumptions, just like the rest of us, yet throughout the book, is authentic and REAL.

We also REALLY loved Riley’s parents. What we loved the most? They’re not perfect. Since Riley hasn’t “come out” when the story begins, there’s this awkward tension that’s always present. You can tell that both Riley’s mom and dad suspect there’s something different about Riley but it’s never addressed. They stumble over mentioning Riley’s clothes, introducing Riley to colleagues, even asking questions about school. They’re not mean or cruel … just confused. When Riley comes out, it’s not perfect either. Gender fluidity isn’t a subject either has ever encountered, especially in relation to their child and there’s a period of adjustment that’s needed by all of them. We loved this. A lot. We’d all love to think that situations like this result in a feel-good ABC Family moment in which there are hugs and kisses and immediate acceptance, but that’s not reality. Especially for something as complex as your child announcing that sometimes they feel like a boy and others a girl. Perceptions must shift, expectations of the future change. Riley’s parents don’t say the perfect words right away, but Garvin does a fantastic job of showing how with a little time, on both the parents and the child’s part, understanding and acceptance can and will happen.

Symptoms of Being Human is full of fantastic secondary characters. Bec and Solo provide the friends that Riley needs to show that hope for acceptance isn’t just a wish. Mike/Michelle and Kanada and the rest of the members of the Q give Riley a safe space. Dr. Ann poses the tough questions to Riley and helps give the reader a deeper understanding of not only the struggle with gender identity, but crippling anxiety and depression as well. Even the “bad guys” are all included to prove a point.

Lastly, the author’s note at the end. Read this, folks! Absolutely do not skip this. It’s compelling reading. Not only will you get insight into Jeff Garvin’s inspiration for Symptoms of Being Human, it includes some startling and terrifying statistics as well as links to organizations available for help or for more information. It also includes this:

Riley goes through a lot in Symptoms, but is blessed with understanding parents, supportive friends, a professional therapist, and a big network of online and IRL people dealing with the same issues. Very few trans or genderqueer teens are so lucky, and almost none have access to the kind of resources and media platform Riley does.

Definitely something to ponder as you read, yeah?

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Um...Not So Much:

What we didn’t love? Well nothing, really. While hard to read in parts, Symptoms of Being Human had us totally enthralled from beginning to end.

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Bottom Line:

If you’re looking for an emotional read that will teach you something along the way, Symptoms of Being Human is a must for you. It’s a story of understanding and acceptance and finding the people who love you for you.

I may not be “blending in”—but if I’m standing out, at least I feel like I’ve found a place to stand.

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