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.
Review: After being bullied at a Catholic high school and a failed suicide attempt, Riley Cavanaugh is looking for a fresh start at Park Hills High. By starting a new school, Riley braces for the question that will be inevitably asked when someone spots Riley, "Is that a girl, or a guy?" Riley quickly gets pegged as an "it", unable to be easily put in a box labeled by a specific gender. Riley identifies as gender fluid, waking up some mornings feeling more like a girl and other mornings feeling more like a boy and would prefer to dress in a manner that reflects this, a secret that she keeps closely to herself.
I was not familiar with gender fluidity until reading this book and I learned a lot. Riley is presented androgynously in order to avoid negative attention especially since her father is in the public eye and running for office. The author does a great job in showing Riley's wide range of inner emotions from anxiety, vulnerability, excitement, strength and confidence without ever resorting to describing Riley's physical features. It actually doesn't matter what Riley looks like because Riley is much more than a checkbox: Riley is smart, funny, and a great writer.
In addition to a real, three dimensional protagonist, a sweet budding romance, there are some flaws in the book that requires a bit of suspension of disbelief. For instance, Riley takes a suggestion of a therapist and starts an anonymous blog about what it's like to be gender fluid. The blog goes viral instantly and quickly accumulates followers overnight, which as a blogger myself found that hard to believe. I also had hard time believing that people would seek out life advice about serious issues from a very inexperienced teen on a blog, but despite these issues Symptoms of Being Human opens up a discussion on identity, gender, and a good starting place about gender fluidity.
Rating: 4 stars
Words of Caution: There is some language including homophobic slurs, scenes of bullying, and mentions about a failed attempted suicide. Recommended for Grades 9 and up.
If you like this book try: Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz, Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard