Symptoms of Being Human
by Jeff Gavin
Expected Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Length: 352 pages
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Obtained Via: I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affected my final opinion of the work.
View at the Traffic light:
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.
Okay, here’s the thing: I’ve been sitting at my computer for about a half hour, just staring at this screen and trying to come up with this review. I’m struggling for a couple of reasons. Namely, I don’t feel terribly qualified to talk about if this is a good book or not in regards to gender issues, but also because it just made me FEEL so many things and I don’t know what to talk about first. I guess I’ll start with the writing, which I found absolutely fantastic. The main character of this book is a writer and it’s told in first person POV. I feel that’s often hard to get across, especially for a teen character, because the writer of the book has to be able to show how *their* character is a writer. But I TOTALLY got it with Riley, who had such a natural way with words that still seemed reasonable as a high school student who was still figuring stuff out too.
The characters are what made this book for me. There’s Riley, of course, but also there’s just such a great supporting cast of characters. At the beginning of the book, Riley moves to a new school and two new friends come along with that: Solo(nicknamed that because of a last name and an obsession with Star Wars), and Beck. Riley’s friends are mostly supportive, but they’re teenagers themselves and dealing with their own things, which means sometimes they say the wrong thing or make big mistakes. I also liked Riley’s parents, who face a lot of pressure(Riley’s father is a congressman), but do really love Riley. There’s also the inclusion of Riley’s therapist, Anne, and it’s so great to see another YA show a competent mental health professional(In some ways Anne reminded me of the therapist in The Rest of Us Just Live Here. In both cases, I thought mental health was handled admirably).
What’s most noticeable, though, I think is the portrayal of Riley’s circumstance. As stated above, I’m clearly not an expert on gender. The author’s note in the back talks about the research that went into this novel, and having read it, I believe it. From the outside looking in, it’s a portrayal that seems true, but I wouldn’t really know. I’ll let the more qualified speak to that. But as for Riley’s circumstances, I found those rang really true. While reading, there was this mix of hope and a bit of dread. Symptoms of Being Human spotlights a lot of violence that often happens to people who exist outside the gender binary. One of the teens who reads Riley’s blog is beaten by her father, for instance, and people do some terrible things to Riley(like a forced outing, for one). There’s no rose-colored glasses, and Riley’s internet fame is handled really well. But there’s also a lot of hope, in the supportive people Riley finds(including a support group that had some more of my favorite side characters).
So, in the end, this book? It’s important. It’s a book I would find important no matter how well-written, I think, because of the characters and how there are so few books in YA that deal with gender identity. But on top of that, I thought the writing was excellent and I could barely put this book down while reading.
Bottom line is that this book is such an important book for YA, and I absolutely loved it.