The first thing you’re going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?
Riley Cavanaugh challenges the reader with a question each of us ask ourselves when we encounter anyone new. It’s subconscious but persistent; even if you’re the type of person who would rather not, even our language is based on knowing the answer as soon as possible. In Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin Riley’s answer depends on the day and even the hour; they are genderfluid, meaning their gender identity shifts from masculine to feminine and never settles.
(A note on pronoun use: Riley never expresses a preference for a certain pronoun in the book, so I will use ‘they’ which is the most common and my personal favourite. If this bugs your grammar judge, read this.)
As the child of a famous congressman, Riley transfers schools just before an election to join the public school system. It’s an election ploy, yes, but it’s also the result of Riley’s problems with mental health. Without the uniform to tie them into one expression of gender, Riley is free to linger around androgynous which, while not perfect, is better to manage their dysphoria. After their first day is a disaster they realise nothing is going to be easier, but at least she has her anonymous blog to vent and help other trans* and genderqueer folk.
Things get bad, then they get worse, yet at its core this story sticks close to Riley instead of spiralling out into a diatribe on gender politics and identity. Riley is smart, capable, and struggling. They are not out to anyone yet simultaneously a famous name (under a pseudonym) online.
I have a soft spot for young adult fiction; the stories are so character driven and focused on growth that they are satisfying reads, and Symptoms of Being Human the development is realistic and just as painful as real life. Riley suffers but through that they grow, and even when they go through moments of self-centered drama (okay, more than just moments) that’s a symptom of being a teenager, genderfluid or not.
This book is not perfect but it is important: I have never read a book that so accurately represents what it is to be genderfluid. There are many people, teenagers and adults alike, who need this kind of book to feel grounded. We all like to see ourselves represented in fiction, or at least parts of ourselves, and for a growing chunk of the population this is difficult.
If you are interested in gender identity or merely want a well-crafted book to gobble up in a day or two, Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin was released February 2nd.