February 5, 2016 • Cee • Reviews

Symptoms of Being Human

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin • February 2, 2016 • Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)
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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?

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.


I received this book for free from HarperCollins for review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

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

Ever wonder what it means to be gender fluid? Symptoms of Being Human does that; it introduces readers to a gender identity that most people don’t know even exist. I knew about gender fluid identity, but my understanding of it was vague.

(Note: The pronouns I’m using for Riley is they/their, as that is a gender-neutral pronoun.)

What does gender fluid mean? It’s a gender identity where a person feels like they’re a mix between a boy and a girl (or neutral); they don’t fit with one gender because it changes. They will always identify differently. (It has nothing to do with their biological sex—female, male, intersex.)

What is Symptoms of Being Human about? It focuses on what this character’s experience as a gender fluid teenager is like. Growing up, Riley Cavanaugh knows they’re different, and figures out on their own that they identify as gender fluid. They’re not out yet, and so they start a blog, on their therapist’s advice, where they talk about what it’s like to be a gender-fluid teenager.

Is Riley a boy or a girl? It fluctuates for Riley. One day, they identify as a boy, and the next day, they identify as a girl. They’re not strictly one gender.

What is Riley like? They’re witty and tough, but incredibly self-absorbed (what teenagers aren’t?). They’re flawed and judgment, which is expected for someone who’s experienced hurt in their life. Riley makes the same mistake everybody would like judge people and assume they’re an asshole because of how they look or who they hang out with. Riley can be a bit annoying because they complain a lot, but it’s understandable. Riley wants to be accepted, and continue to struggle with their gender identity.

How is gender fluidity talked about? It’s not like you’re reading a textbook nor an informational pamphlet about it. Jeff Garvin chose to showcase gender fluidity and what life is like by incorporating a blog into it, which I thought worked great. It was accessible without making it feel too technical. This book gives you a voice about what a teenager, who’s gender fluid, may be going through.

Support system: Riley is not alone in their struggles. They become friends with Solo, a big football player who nerds out for Star Wars, and Bec, a girl who Riley harbors a crush on. I loved seeing that Riley slowly grow to trust them, and that they have people on their side who accept them for who they are.

Pronouns talk: What pronoun does Riley want to be called? The book does not address this. Does Riley prefer being called she/her or he/him?  Maybe even they/them? I am bothered by that when I try to talk about this book, and it makes me frustrated because I want to refer to Riley by a pronoun they’re okay with. Yeah, they’re a fictional character, but you have to take into account what pronouns a person is okay with because it’s very important. You wouldn’t want somebody to refer to you as a “he” (because of how you looked) if you actually identify differently and prefer people to use “she.”

Other thoughts:

  • This book doesn’t tell you what Riley’s biological sex is. I know some readers will want to know, but I was personally okay with it because that’s not what the book is trying to address, and it’s none of our business.

  • I really did not like the story when it involved Bec. Bec was this elusive girl who readers don’t get to know until it’s too late in the story. She seems to exist only to introduce Riley to the Queer Alliance meeting (even though I feel like Riley would’ve made it there on her own), and then she disappears in her mystique. I lacked the connection to Bec that Riley saw because readers don’t get to know much about Bec. She was just one note.

Be aware: There’s scenes of homophobia, transphobia, bullying, stalking, suicide, and sexual assault.

Why you need to read Symptoms of Being Human: It creates a conversation about what it means to be gender fluid. There are people who don’t see themselves as simply a girl or a boy, and it’s important to have a book that gives them a voice and helps educate people that gender fluidity exists.


6 Responses to “(ARC) REVIEW | Boy or Girl? How About Both & Neither. (Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin)”

  1. I only know a little bout what it means to be gender fluid and I think I could benefit from reading this book. It sounds like a very good read. Thanks for the review.

  2. Jess says:

    I’ll admit that I’m not the most informed on gender identities so I think this one will help open my eyes and understand things a bit more. My friend really enjoyed this one and your review has just cemented the fact that I need to read it!

  3. I think pronouns should definitely have been introduced in this book – mis-gendering is such a big issue and I think the more awareness, the better. But still, this sounds great! I have a limited understanding of gender-fluidity myself, but I guess with books it’s easier to emphathise because you’re actually in the person’s head :)


    Other than that, I haven’t exactly read a book with a strictly gender fluid character or maybe even never, that’s why I need this book pronto! <3 Lovely review, Cee <3

  5. Annalisse says:

    I cannot wait to get my hands on this book. I think its important for creating conversation about this topic as well as being informative and a great read at the same time.

  6. AngelErin says:

    Wow I just can’t wait to read this one. Great review!

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