Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin Review: Boy or girl? Does it matter?

January 27, 2016 by Jenna | 4 stars, ARC Reviews, Books, Reviews

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin Review: Boy or girl? Does it matter?Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Published by Balzer + Bray on February 2nd 2016
Source: Publisher, Edelweiss
Genres: Contemporary, LGBT, Romance, Young Adult
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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.

The issue that Symptoms of Being Human tackles is something I’ve never read before. This novel features a gender fluid character and the struggles that come with coming out as a gender fluid individual, especially when nobody understands what it means or what it’s like to continually switch between identifying as a male and a female.

I thought this novel was very informative and it was evident how much research had gone into this book. It provided a lot of great information about what it’s like to live as a gender fluid individual, including all the struggles they face due to others misunderstanding them. The book also highlights how often gender fluid and transexual individuals are assaulted and how rarely these incidents are reported. Despite having a large amount of information, this book never felt info-dumpy. Most of the information was presented in the blog posts that Riley shared online and these felt separate and distinct enough from the plot and story that they never interfered with the flow of the book. I appreciated how much I learnt about gender fluidity and I’m glad that this book is out there in the world.

Gender identity is not external. It isn’t dictated by your anatomy. It’s internal. It’s something you feel, not something you see – and it can be way more complicated than just male or female.

As much as I liked the learning experience, I didn’t find the reading experience to be as enjoyable. This book doesn’t really have much of a plot or story arc. It feels very slice of life and throughout the whole book, we mainly see Riley’s daily anxieties and troubles, without any real plot. While this is a coming out story, and there’s a lot of focus on Riley growing stronger as a person and finding his/her own purpose in life, it never felt like Riley had any intention of coming out. Everything seemed very accidental and nothing that happened in the plot came across to me as purposeful on Riley’s part. Having said that, I did enjoy Riley’s development in the book and it kind of carried the plot and kept it from being boring.

Son of a bitch; blogging is therapeutic.

As a blogger, I really enjoyed that Riley used blogging as a way of letting out emotions and thoughts. I liked following Riley’s journey from starting a blog and having no followers, to slowly accumulating comments and followers who appreciated the things that Riley posted. It reminded me a lot of my own journey as a blogger (though I’ll never ever get to the 50,000 followers that Riley has). I liked being able to see the responses that Riley’s readers had towards the content that was posted, and that these comments had an effect on Riley’s growth and everyday life.

In terms of Riley’s character, I loved that we never got to find out what Riley’s biological gender was. There were a lot of instances where it could have been revealed but the author chose to omit that information, which I appreciated because it doesn’t really matter. Riley chooses to dress and act in a neutral manner, which made her quite an enigmatic character to me. There wasn’t anything about Riley that made him/her stand out to me and, as a result, Riley was a pretty unmemorable character. Without the gender fluidity, and the rareness of this topic in YA, I don’t think I would remember Riley after a couple of months. Riley’s character did have a great voice and it was snarky and funny at times, but I also found him/her to be too whiny and weak during other times. I did really enjoy the friendships in this book though, and some of the side characters made up for the annoyance that I sometimes felt towards Riley’s character. Riley’s friends were just so supportive and non-judgmental. Their acceptance of Riley was so beautiful to see.


Symptoms of Being Human was a great book about gender fluidity and had lots of well-researched and detailed information about the subject. While I found the plot to be a little bit lacking, the learning experience more than made up for the slightly plotless story. This novel is an LGBTQ+ novel done right.

Rating: 4 out of 5


Thanks to HarperCollins for the eARC. 

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Jenna is an Aussie blogger and reader who loves to indulge in great books and great food. She is a doctor (of philosophy) and can usually be found fangirling about something, devouring delicious food, or taking a nap. You can find her on Twitter @readwithjenna and on Instagram @readingwithjenna.

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45 responses to “Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin Review: Boy or girl? Does it matter?

  1. Trisha Ann

    I really luuurve the premise of this book. I love it even more when you mentioned how evident the author did a thorough research prior to writing it. It just makes it more accurate and less subject to judgments. We need more authors who are willing to take the extra extra extra mile just to give their readers not just pleasure but also correctness. I can't wait to read it! Love your compelling review, Jenna! 😀

    • Exactly! There are so many books where authors just give you a big info-dump at the beginning to show all the research they did, but then don't really show that they actually know much about the topic? I loved that this book had a lot of information throughout the book and that the author really thought about how he was going to use the information in the plot. The effort that went into the book really showed!

    • Hi Val! Yeah I definitely recommend this one to everyone who's looking for a great diverse/LGBTQ+ read. It was eye-opening and not something that we read a lot about. I really appreciated how much work has gone into making this book informative and realistic!

  2. The book sounds really intriguing. I kind of like that Riley's anatomical sex if not revealed. Too bad about the lack of plot though.

    I haven't read a lot of books about gender-fluidity, but this one reminds me a bit of Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman, which you might enjoy as well, although Alex's situation is a bit different.
    My recent post Review:Model Spy

  3. This book reminds me very much of None of the Above, it's more of an informative book without much of a plotline. I love the elements of the character being a blogger, although not ever finding out the character's biological gender would drive me crazy. But I suppose that's what this book is about isn't it? Not categorising someone just so we can box them away neatly. Lovely review Jenna!

    • Reply coming to you 2 weeks late T_T. Not finding out the MC's biological gender was a little bit frustrating because there were so many moments when it seemed like we were going to find out. But I'm glad that we didn't because it really doesn't matter.

  4. Oh, this is great! I haven't read any books about gender fluid people either so far, but I really want to. I'm wondering if the author is gender fluid themselves or this was just researched or has somehow touched them personally. I love that it spreads informative messages and is something that everyone should read and think more of. Plus, it's great that there isn't info-dumping but it comes rather naturally and I love the blog post idea. Ah, this is sad 🙁 That they don't really want to come out but by accident more or less it happens. I do find though that there are voices and personalities like Riley needed in fiction too who don't stand out per se (except in this case I'm sure the gender fluid aspect of the book will help us all remember them), because a lot of people are like this in real life. Yay for supportive friends 🙂 I'm really glad you loved and appreciated this as a whole, Jenna! <3
    My recent post A Creature of Habit? Maybe, Maybe Not!

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Siiri. I don't know too much about the author but I don't believe that he's gender fluid. I think this was just an exceptionally well-researched book on a topic that we all need to learn more about. I also really appreciated the blog post idea and how all of the information was communicated through the blog posts. It would have been really info-dumpy if it had been done through the narrative. I'm glad that Riley was able to create something good out of all of the bad. It definitely sucked that Riley was forced to come out before he/she was ready but I appreciated that Riley managed to do something great and help others who are going through a similar situation.

    • I think I've read a couple of books with bloggers but they're not coming to mind right now. Maddie from Everything Everything kind of has a book blog?

  5. anotherafterthought

    This is another title/debut that's high up there on my contemporary TBR. Good to see you both enjoyed it and acknowledge its merits of tackling a different kind of subject matter that's rarely discussed. Although I do may have some qualms as to plotlessness, what would you say it's like in comparison to another plotless book such as The Rest of Us JLH?
    My recent post [Think Aloud] – #27 – The Absurdity of Protagonists Remembering Everyone They’ve Met

    • I don't even remember what happened in The Rest of Us Just Live Here… so I would say that this one has a little bit more plot than TROUJLH. It's just really slow and focuses more on daily struggles. It does have a climax and it's a coming out story so there's stuff that actually happens. Just slow. And sometimes boring.

  6. Evi @ Where Books Never End

    I haven't read this, but I feel kind of similarly about another LGBTQ+ book- The Art of Being Normal, I believe it's called?- and it's about trans characters. And it was indeed informative and a nice perspective…but I had absolutely zero interest in the rest of it. 🙁 Good review, though! It's great at least that there are beginning to be books with genderfluid characters.

    • I haven't read The Art of Being Normal but it sounds like your experience with that book might be similar to mine with Symptoms of Being Human. I learnt a lot but the plot was pretty average. It was mostly about Riley's daily struggles and a little bit about coming out. I liked that this book talked about the differences between being gender fluid and transgender though because the distinction is something that's definitely confusing to some.

    • The plot wasn't too bad but it was definitely slow and a bit boring at times. I was just expecting more to happen but it mostly dealt with Riley's daily struggles and anxiety. Which I did appreciate because I learnt so much!

  7. Book Blather

    I love "slice of life" books – it's one reason why I love Huntley Fitzpatrick so much – and books with blogs! I just read Everything, Everything and the book-reviews on Maddy's blog were one of my favourite parts! This sounds good. 🙂

    • Riley is super snarky when it comes to the blog and comments. It was hilarious just to watch him/her tear apart people who were being negative. This book isn't formatted like Everything Everything, but I still enjoyed the blog posts a lot. And OMG I LOVE HUNTLEY FITZPATRICK!

  8. keionda

    WOW. Gender fluidity? I've never, EVA read a book like this so I have a feeling it's going to be either very informative or very ,very heart breaking because I'll have to experience exaclty what these characters (and what some everyday people) deal with on a daily basis! It's a scary thing but I'm sure it's worth the read!

    Thanks for such an organized and well-[ut together review Jenna! <3

    • Haha I think it's both very informative AND heartbreaking! I definitely felt all of the things that Riley was going through and how anxiety provoking it all was! I'm just sad that we don't know more about it!

    • I love reading diverse books and it's so wonderful that authors are putting out books about different LGBTQ+ characters. I love reading about gay and lesbian characters, but there are so many people who identify differently and I want to read about them too.

  9. Josephine

    Jenna! Wow you've convinced me that I need to read this. Along with the fact that I really need to read more well-written LGBTQ+ books, the fact that this tackles 'gender fluidity' which is something I've NEVER heard of, makes me really curious to read it. I'd love to read this book simply for the learning experience.
    Great review! Now I'm skittering off to Goodreads to add this to my to-read pile!
    My recent post Beautiful Disasters // Top Five Wednesday

    • I saw a review for this book that compared it to What We Left Behind by Robin Talley (which I believe you've read?). I haven't read it but apparently there's a gender fluid character in that book and it wasn't explored that well? Not sure… But yeah the learning experience was definitely great, even though I was a bit bored at times because not much was happening. Definitely a must-read.

  10. I don't think I've ever read a book with a gender fluid protagonist either. This sounds interesting in terms of the things a reader can learn, but I have to admit that the lack of plot and the rather bland main character don't particularly appeal to me.
    Lovely review, Jenna!
    My recent post Waiting On Wednesday (119)

    • It's definitely a slow-moving contemporary where not much actually happens so there were times when I was a little bored. But the information that I learnt definitely made up for it! It's a super interesting topic that I don't think many people have read about.

    • YAY! Glad I managed to convince some people to read it 🙂 I seriously learnt so much from this book. I had no idea what gender fluidity was or what it was like to be gender fluid so this was so informative and eye-opening! I will join you in your quest to shove books at ignorant people!

  11. lalainthelibrary

    This sounds interesting. I would definitely have to be in the mood for something that was more informative than entertaining, but I do have those moments every now and again. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, Jenna. 🙂
    My recent post TELL ME TUESDAY #79

    • I wouldn't say that it wasn't entertaining… but I felt like I got more out of the informative aspects of the book than the plot. The plot was pretty generic. I hope you give it a go though because it was fascinating!

  12. Ooh, I do want to read this, because I've never read a book about gender fluidity, BUT. I am a bit disappointed with the lack of plot. Bleh. And the blandness of Riley? I like characters that pop off the page and really sTAY with me…although hehe, I'M STILL GOING TO READ THIS. You're very convincing, Jenna ;D

    • Haha, I try my best! Yeah, the book was a bit slow because nothing was really happening but it was an eye-opening read and I'm glad I read it. Learnt lots of new things that I didn't know before.

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