Symptoms of Being Human
Riley explains genderfluidity as a dial. It’s somewhere in the middle on some days, all the way on one side on the others, but can honestly go anywhere on the spectrum and change at any time. That clear, solid explanation is hard to forget or get confused, so you won’t get lost easily by the concept of it. It likely does get more complicated than that in real life, but it’s a good start for an introduction.
Anyway, the writing is lovely–especially in Riley’s blog posts–and Riley’s own voice is spot-on as well as the pressures present as a closeted teen who already got pulled out of one school after a little… incident. aka suicide attempt. Riley has a lot going on in life and is very isolated at first, especially since most of the support from Riley’s parents is more about them not wanting another suicide attempt than anything, but watching the support network grow is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Riley’s novel is no happy journey either. Our main character is in for a very difficult ride.
What Left Me Wanting:
At the same time, Symptoms of Being Human feels more like a pamphlet than a novel at times. Flat-out recitations of statistics are abound and it’s a very didactic experience meant for readers trying to do Gender Identity 101. Like the QUILTBAG equivalent of 2 + 2 = 4. If you already know a lot about each letter of QUILTBAG and want higher-level discussion, you won’t find it here. His story is 100% about his identity. Nothing else. As someone represented by the letter A in the above acronym, I wouldn’t want a novel starring an asexual character to be entirely about their identity. We live, we have other things going on, and we happen to be ace and deal with those issues sometimes. Riley doesn’t seem to have anything other than being genderfluid going on.
Now, about the sexual assault,… Late in the novel, Riley is sexually assaulted. Review after review call this book a mirror, so it makes you wonder whether this supposed mirror book–meaning intended for the portrayed group to read so they can see themselves in fiction–really needs to reflect the harsh reality of high rates of sexual assault back at trans/nonbinary readers who likely already know from experience. Don’t they deserve some escapism too? To me, admittedly a cisgender woman, it felt unnecessary. A close call wouldn’t have left as bad of a taste in my mouth as the full-on assault did.
Before I reviewed this, I did intend for someone close to me to read it first. My roommate’s boyfriend is genderfluid and he had interest in reading it, but I took my copy home during a visit and left it on accident, so I’ll likely never know how someone of the group portrayed would think of their portrayal. It happens. Just keep in mind this is a book written by a cisgender man (nothing indicated otherwise) likely for a cisgender audience and adjust your expectations appropriately.
If you don’t know much about QUILTBAG people and lives outside the original four letters of LGBT, Symptoms of Being Human is a good start to learn more about the Q for queer in QUILTBAG (and maybe the U, which I say stands for “Ummm…” and covers both more complex identities like agender that may not fit the other groups according to who’s talking as well as people questioning their identity).
*gorgeous writing, especially in Riley's blog posts
*very voice-driven novel
*tough ride but worth it in the end