John C Adams Reviews 'Symptoms of Being Human' by Jeff Garvin
Updated: Mar 29
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin (Harper Collins, 2016)
My daughter bought me this book for my birthday as part of a drive to encourage me to read more fiction about gender identity and gender fluidity. I'm nonbinary, but there are so many other permutations and combinations to explore beyond that and I feel like I'm really just getting started in understanding all of them. Following Garvin's lead, I have not used any pronouns to refer to the main (agender) character in the course of this inaugural 'Monday Musings' book review.
'Symptoms of Being Human' is Jeff Garvin's first novel, but he's an actor and rock singer and also has a BFA in Film from Chapman University, so it's fair to say he's been around, busy living the dream and finding himself along the way. You can't ask for more than that in a debut author.
Riley Cavanaugh has alot to contend with. High school is tough enough at the best of times without gender identity issues to add to the burden. Just to top the pressure off nicely, Riley's dad is a US Congressman up for re-election in a very conservative district. After a meltdown and stint in rehab, Riley opts to change from super-privileged Catholic school to the local public school, Park Hills High. The hope is for a fresh start and to escape some of the more unsettling and intrusive questions about whether Riley is a boy or a girl that have plagued high school so far. However, Riley soon discovers that the knottiest problems lie within and a change of locale alone won't cure the gut-wrenching anxiety that becomes overwhelming whenever gender fluidity causes Dysphoria to strike.
Counsellor Doctor Ann suggests that Riley start a blog as a way to express some pretty complicated feelings about gender identity. The blog is anonymous but it soon goes viral, turning Riley into an unwilling arbiter of how to deal with complex gender issues Riley is only just beginning to get to grips with. This explodes into a competing blast of support and condemnation, fairly equally divided, when a fellow gender fluid teen follows Riley's advice and returns home only to be viciously attacked by the father of the family. Matters worsen for Riley when it becomes apparent that someone at Park Hills High has guessed that Riley is running the anonymous viral blog and threatens to expose the secret.
'Symptoms of Being Human' is one of the first Young Adult books to address gender fluidity and gender identity, so it has been duly recognised as groundbreaking via a number of awards, including being a finalist in the Lambda Literary Award and ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults.
Understandably, Garvin's novel is told in the first person. This makes it intimately, and rightly, Riley's story throughout. The main character is very likeable even though (or perhaps because) incredibly conflicted and complicated. Riley is utterly relatable for anyone non-cis, but also compelling as a narrator for cis readers, too, because most young adults know what it is to search for an identity, to learn to be yourself, and appreciate how hard that can be to achieve.
Even as a much older reader I revelled in this book because, although I am nonbinary rather than gender fluid or agender, I still know what it feels like to experience gender Dysphoria and the anxiety that accompanies it. This novel speaks to readers of all ages, which isn't typical in a YA book in my experience.
The narrative was tightly delivered. This kept the reader's eye on Riley, and the plot was never allowed to spin off towards the subordinate questions of whether Riley's father will win re-election, what will happen to the teenager Riley advised online or what domestic disasters are preoccupying Riley's love interest Bec. The high school world Riley struggles to understand is rich and challenging, helping the reader to remember that almost everyone has issues regardless of how settled their gender identity may be, but the focus was always kept on Riley. I liked that very much.
Garvin's style was thoroughly autobiographical, and I had to remind myself many times that this was fiction rather than life writing. This is a testament to the strength of the author's skill, inventing characters and situations so real that the reader forgets that they aren't. However, there was quite a feel of telling the story rather than showing it as a result. This is no way marred my enjoyment because it supported Riley's agender sense of self.
'Symptoms of Being Human' is one of the best books I've read in a long time. It was powerful, sincere, unabashed. Reading it was moving and inspiring in equal measure.
I hope you've enjoyed my review of 'Symptoms of Being Human' by Jeff Garvin. My next Monday Muse will be posted a fortnight today. In the meantime, my next blog post, this Wednesday, will be my review of Mervyn Peake's 1946 novel 'Titus Groan' as part of my Way Back Whensday series of blog postings.
In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts on this review in the comments section that follows. I'd love to know what you think about this novel or about any other agender or LGBTQIA+ novel you've enjoyed reading. Feel free to suggest other books for me to review as well in the comments section below.
John C Adams