Sunday, February 7, 2016

Book Review: "Symptoms of Being Human" by Jeff Garvin

I was bullied quite a lot in high school because my lack of athleticism and my passion for music and drama made me an easy target. While there was a lot in high school I enjoyed, it was a tremendously stressful and traumatizing time in so many ways, and every day I wanted to escape the notice of my tormentors.

But as painful as that was, it doesn't hold a candle to the treatment of Riley Cavanaugh in Jeff Garvin's absolutely amazing Symptoms of Being Human.

"The first thing you're going to want to know about me is: Am I a boy, or am I a girl?"

Riley is a gender fluid teenager. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, some days as a girl. That certainly doesn't make things easy, or allow Riley's wish to simply blend in ever to be realized. To top it all off, Riley is about to start attending a new, public high school (things at the private Catholic school didn't go well, to put it mildly), and Riley's congressman father is locked in a tight re-election battle in his conservative Orange County district. It's more pressure than any teenager could bear, much less one struggling with understanding who they are, and keeping it all a secret.

When the pressure gets to be too much, Riley follows a therapist's advice: share. So Riley creates Alix, a fictional persona with tremendously similar characteristics, and starts to write a blog as an outlet. Riley doesn't realize how cathartic it will be to share feelings, fears, insecurities, frustrations—from when a new friend turns away rather than confront bullies, or the mysterious behavior of a punk-rocker girl that catches Riley's eye. And Riley quickly realizes there are so many people out there experiencing the same things and dealing with the same problems. It's the first time Riley has felt valued in a long while.

But while Riley's online persona does attract some negative feedback as well, the biggest problem comes when someone starts leaving comments on the blog hinting that they know who Riley is, and they threaten to expose who the real Alix is. This could pose a real problem, as Riley isn't ready to embrace the truth or share it with others. But the stalker isn't interested—and there's no better time to reveal Riley's secret than just before Election Day.

What an emotional, fantastic read this was! I actually read the entire book in less than two hours, thanks to some bronchitis-related insomnia. It was tremendously poignant and truly insightful, for while I don't understand what it is like to be gender fluid, I do understand what it's like to feel different, but to simply want to be able to live your life the way you want, with no one interfering. Garvin did a great job trying to make most of the characters, including Riley's parents, more sympathetic and complex, although the two real villains in the book didn't get the same treatment, so you didn't quite understand what pushed them to do what they did.

As I've said before, I believe it is so wonderful that books like this exist in today's world, and Symptoms of Being Human is such a good one. While we've come a long way in terms of public perception of sexuality and gender issues, there is still a long way to go, and it's important that today's teenagers and young adults have books and other resources to help them deal with their struggles instead of leaving them to harm themselves or take their own lives.

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