Published by Flatiron Books
Publication date: January 24th 2017
Taming what was scary not by hiding it, not by blocking it or burying it, not by keeping it secret, but by reminding themselves, and everyone else, to choose love, choose openness, to think and be calm. That there were more ways than just two, wider possibilities than hidden or betrayed, stalled or brokenhearted, male or female, right or wrong. Middle ways. Ways beyond.
Sometimes in reading there is the remarkable synchronicity of the perfect books finding a reader when they need them most. Last Monday I wrote about The Rules of Magic, a novel about self-acceptance and the power of love, told through the lens of a family of witches and today I’m back with This Is How It Always Is. A novel with the exact same premise, but rooted in the harsh realities of today’s world. It’s the story of an American family of six for whom everything changes with the arrival of their fifth child, a boy they name Claude. So I can’t be accused of burying the lead…this is my #1 recommended book of 2017. Yes, I know we have two months to go in the year, but the odds are against my coming across another book I will love as much as this timely and extraordinary novel.
Claude is the last son born into a family of boisterous boys. His mother, Rosie, is an ER doctor, his father, Penn, is a stay-at-home dad working on a novel and they live in a small town in Wisconsin. He is a beautiful baby and a sweet, gentle toddler, but as he reaches his fifth birthday he begins to express preferences for things that are distinctly unboylike. Namely, girls’ clothes. In the years before school his parents indulge him, not wanting to inhibit this form of personal expression. It isn’t until Claude is ready to go to kindergarten that Penn and Rosie begin to realize that Claude doesn’t just want to dress-up like a girl—he wants to be a girl. Suddenly, what is openly accepted in their family becomes an issue they must face not only amongst themselves, but with the world-at-large.
At first, Claude becomes Poppy at home, but dresses as Claude at school. The family negotiates this reality with teachers, principals, and other parents, until in the ER, Rosie encounters a transgender woman who has been beaten and shot. After this, the family leaves Wisconsin for Seattle, where they think Poppy will be safer. Again, they are faced with a decision: is it Poppy or Claude who will go? It is Poppy and she is an exuberant, funny, smart little girl who makes friends and loves her life. There are no questions about bathrooms and discovery because at age six these are not things that come up. She is accepted and for four years the family settles into a normal routine, with the exception of the secret they all keep from everyone around them. It isn’t until fifth grade arrives that everything changes…again.
There are hard decisions that can never be unmade. There are hard decisions she’s not old enough to make. There are decisions that just shouldn’t be made for you by your parents. If she is a girl, if deep inside this is her truth, if she needs this, if she wants this, if she must, if she’s sure, then yes, of course yes, thank God yes, we will support her and help her and do all we can…But easier? It would be easier for her to be a boy.
This is one iteration of a conversation Penn and Rosie have been having since Claude first asked to wear a dress to school. Now that she’s ten, hormones and the passing of time are forcing their hand. At every stage of Claude/Poppy’s childhood Penn and Rosie are faced with what to do; love of their child is not enough. They want to protect, but does that mean choosing the easiest road or the one that acknowledges their child’s true self? With each conversation Frankel illuminates the perilous nature of parenting, with its unrelenting fears about doing the right thing.
The story may be Poppy’s, but something like this belongs to every family member. Frankel writes This Is How It Always Is from the third person which is exactly as it should be. She handles each character with respect and understanding without negating the multitude of feelings that arise over the years. Her brothers love Poppy, but as they are pushed and pulled by her life and forced to keep a secret of this magnitude they act out in different ways and Frankel gives them the space on the page to do so. She gives the same loving care to every character in the novel. There is no perfect solution to be found, just a family overflowing from the page with all their quirks, drama, and gorgeous vibrancy. This is real life in an extraordinary situation, with all its mistakes, messes, fear, and love. The journey is never over and no single decision is the right one.
You don’t need to be a parent or to know a transgender person to be deeply touched and drawn in by This Is How It Always Is. Yes, it’s a story about one family dealing with a very specific parenting issue, but it is to Frankel’s credit that the Walsh-Adams, much like Poppy herself, cannot be pigeon-holed into a simple definition of a family with a transgender child. They are so much more than that. Using the critical components of respect and humor she gives readers a tender, scary novel that is as real as life itself. Often when I review a novel, even if I give it my highest rating I know it may not be right for certain people. This is not the case with This Is How It Always Is. If you are human, you need to read this book. NOW.