“Claude is five years old, the youngest of five brothers, and loves peanut butter sandwiches. He also loves wearing a dress, and dreams of being a princess. When he grows up, Claude says, he wants to be a girl. Rosie and Penn want Claude to be whoever Claude wants to be. They’re just not sure they’re ready to share that with the world. Soon the entire family is keeping Claude’s secret. Until one day it explodes. This Is How It Always Is is a novel about revelations, transformations, fairy tales, and family. And it’s about the ways this is how it always is: Change is always hard and miraculous and hard again, parenting is always a leap into the unknown with crossed fingers and full hearts, children grow but not always according to plan. And families with secrets don’t get to keep them forever.”
When a proof copy of This Is How It Always Is popped through my doorbox, I was intrigued by its gorgeous, minimalist production values (cream cover with gold foil; bare blurb). I opened it up and read the first few pages – and soon I had put aside all of my plans for that evening and just kept on reading.
Laurie Frankel’s book is a gorgeous, life-affirming novel about a set of parents, Rosie and Penn, with a large family (Orion and Regel, Claude, Roo and Ben) and an ever-evolving array of methods to bring them up with. As with all siblings (and people), each son has their own distinctive and different set of personality traits, quirks, and flaws. Claude is a little more different. He is three when he announces that he wants to be a girl: five when he decides that he’s going to be called Poppy and start dressing like a girl.
Accepting, tolerant, patient and loving parents, Rosie and Penn, still aren’t quite sure when them batting away the inevitable childish questions (why is the sky blue? what do turtles eat? when I grow up and become a girl, will I start over?) and quirks became Claude/Poppy’s new way of life. All they know is that they want to accept and nurture Claude’s flourishing personality. It’s a mixed blessing for Rosie, who desperately yearned for her fifth child to be a girl – and a great source of confusion for Claude’s siblings, until, with trademark childlike equanimity, they accept his new identity without any qualms. But when a couple of occurrences make it apparent to Rosie and Penn that where they currently live in Wisconsin isn’t the best place to encourage a gender-dysphoric child’s growth, they decide to relocate to Seattle, a much more welcoming environment for their rambunctious family – despite the family fractures that they are unknowingly causing in the process.
Though their new neighbourhood is much more welcoming, they decide to keep Poppy’s ‘true’ gender a secret, and thus the biggest secret that the Walsh-Adams will ever have to keep is born – and carried, throughout the years, as the children grow, develop, make friends, start to date, and, eventually, fall in love. As Poppy struggles to accept the black-and-white gender-role obsessed society that, for her, raises more questions than it answers, Penn’s bedtime stories, featuring Grumwald and Princess Stephanie, shows art imitating life as he uses his stories to help guide his children – mostly Poppy – through the rocky terrain of child- and kidulthood.
But then Poppy’s secret is revealed, and everything the family has built together starts to collapse. Old fractures come to the surface; new ones start to develop. As the Walsh-Adams family struggle to deal with the fallout, Poppy – who is now Claude again – experiences a total identity crisis. Will she find courage to accept the identity she’s been sure of since she was three years old, or will the struggle she now faces leave her confused and alone? Rather than try and answer all of the difficult questions that the book raises, Frankel leaves the ending in an open-ended but optimistic manner, letting readers draw their own interpretations and conclusions.
Simply put, This Is How It Always Is is a stunning novel, and one that our ever-evolving society desperately needs. Laurie Frankel shows razor-sharp insight with her depiction of Rosie and Penn’s parenting skills, Poppy’s struggles and how they all fit into the wider context of modern society. This is not only an essential book for anyone who wants to understand more about the transgender experience, but also for anyone who enjoys a heart-warming and thought-provoking read.
Frankel’s relatable, likeable writing style delivers the novel’s key messages in a subtle yet poignant way, showing how no-one – least of all parents – is completely infallible, and right all the time. It also reinforces how, more importantly, a lot of us are muddling through life, following our hearts and trying to forge a path through an often uncertain world according to our hopes, dreams and desires – something that the novel’s message encourages us to do, rather than conforming to life’s ideals and standards. An intelligently written, evocative, important read – I cannot praise this book highly enough.
Many thanks to Headline for the review copy.