100-Character Breakdown: As captivating as it is educational. An evocative, important debut and portrait of a gender fluid teen.
Genre: Young adult, LGBTQ
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (February 2016)
Jeff Garvin’s debut novel Symptoms of Being Human is as captivating as it is educational. The book’s gender fluid protagonist Riley Cavanaugh is deftly drawn with vivid narrative and deep characterization. There are days when Riley identifies as female and days when Riley identifies as male; some days, Riley feels somewhere in between. But Riley isn’t out to anyone—except a therapist whose advice leads to Riley’s decision to start an anonymous blog about what it’s like to be gender fluid. Riley is also struggling with having a congressman for a father and the pressures that come with the political spotlight of his reelection campaign. In the midst of it all, Riley also just transferred to Park Hills High School and is hoping to blend in with the other students. But that hope falls apart when Riley’s blog suddenly gains a massive following and threatening messages start to appear in the blog inbox.
Garvin achieves a perfect balance between the story and the educational aspects of the book. He weaves in information intricately, teaching the reader about gender in a way that makes this novel sharp with impact. The impact isn’t just in how moving the story is, but in how the story moves the reader to empathize and understand gender identity and anxiety. Alongside this impact, Garvin manages to include a page-turning plot and moments of genuine humor. And while Riley is undoubtedly the heart of the novel, Garvin surrounds his protagonist with three-dimensional characters like Solo, a football player struggling to be himself among the peer pressure of the team, and Bec, whose complicated family breathes depth into her character. Using a variety of other characters, Garvin includes numerous issues that deserve a spotlight, and he treats every single one with care and successful craft. One of the most powerful elements of the story is that the reader never learns Riley’s assigned gender from birth. Riley’s identity is nonetheless clear to the readers, and Garvin makes a beautiful point about the importance of simply being human. This novel is important, evocative, and educational; Riley is a character we can all learn from.