Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin is another of my Writer’s Book Club books, and I’m quite grateful I read it. It’s what I’d describe as a literary YA novel dealing primarily with the internal struggle of protagonist Riley Cavanaugh, nonbinary child of a congressman from Park Hills, California.
At the opening of the story, Riley isn’t doing too hot. They (there isn’t a preferred pronoun in the book, so they seems the best pronoun to use for the review due to familiarity and widespread adoption) have just transferred to a new school and have chosen to adopt a gender-neutral persona in an attempt to deflect constant questions about gender. Right when they walk into school, they’re immediately called “it” and attacked by a group of girls led by Sierra, one of the main antagonists in the book.
When they settle into their first period class, they meet a big Samoan dude nicknamed Solo and hit it off over geeky references. Just as they get comfortable in this new friendship, however, they’re left alone and stranded in their third period and eventually at lunch, where the football team humiliates them by demanding to know if they are a “fag” or a “dyke.”
Back at home, Riley avoids talking to their family about their experiences and instead turns to the blog they had started at the beginning of the first chapter. Under the pseudonym Alix, they spill their feelings out onto Tumblr expy Bloglr, believing it’s more like a journal than a blog post due to their lack of followers. They didn’t expect their blog to pick up followers and attract attention, and they certainly didn’t expect the later attention of love interest Bec.
Much like the last book I reviewed, A Land of Iron, the relationships between the protagonist and those around them form the beating heart of this book. Riley feels like a real teenager, and the way they dodge language about their biological sex and instead explore the pure psychological experience of being genderqueer/gender fluid is expertly done. I’ve heard there’s a film adaptation in the works and I doubt film can go half as far to openly experience the wonder and horror of gender dysphoria and a quest to find one’s place in the world at such a young age.
Unlike many narratives surrounding LGBTQ youth, this story gifts its protagonist with supportive (if misguided) parents, a decent level of privilege (one of the few physical details we get about Riley is that they are white) and wealth, and a support network of hard won friends. It does explore the other side through a subplot involving a follower of Riley’s blog who gets beaten within an inch of her life after coming out as trans to her parents, but for the most part the focus is on Riley and their journey to self acceptance and attempts to help others in their position accept their gender fluidity.
The writing style is smooth, clear, and consistent. It really feels like a teenager talking to me as I read, and I found myself sucked into Riley’s experiences as I read along.
5/5, well executed work that deserves its success. I’m glad the author decided to help fill a much needed niche in the LGBTQ+ sphere of fiction.