Laurie Frankel brings us inside a raucous and somewhat unconventional Wisconsin family in This Is How It Always Is. Rosie and Penn, respectively a doctor and a writer, are the parents of four boys when she gets pregnant again. Every time she’s expecting they hope for a girl. And each time, they welcome a boy. The fifth pregnancy is no exception.
But their youngest, Claude, is a unique child. Early on, he plays more like you’d expect a girl to play. He loves dressing up in a princess dress. Plus, he wants to be a night fairy, among other things. Rosie and Penn suspect their youngest child is transgender. But they’re mostly too busy parenting and working to spend much time worrying.
It doesn’t take long for Claude to make his desire to be a girl named Poppy known to his family. Once he’s school age, the people there get involved in the situation. Everything gets more complicated, even though the educators and staff try to help.
Ultimately, Penn and Rosie decide that moving the whole family to Seattle is the answer. Theoretically, it’s a very liberal city. So raising a transgender daughter shouldn’t be a big deal. Until they discover keeping secrets is always complicated, no matter where you are.
In the fall out from this complicated event, Rosie takes their youngest child to Thailand. She’s going to be working in a medical clinic, and she’s not even sure what Poppy will be doing. But it’s clearly better than being home where all the conflict lives.
Frankel crafts a story that is by turns politically correct and relevant for all of us. No matter your beliefs, kids are coming out earlier than ever. This novel gives readers a chance to experience the events and feelings around gender identity mostly from the parental perspective, albeit fictitious.
My in-person book group chose this as our October book. Our group includes some mental health professionals, and also the godmother to a trans godson, me. We had a long and detailed discussion, which makes me recommend to any interested book group.
I’m choosing to refer to the transgender character in this book as her and Poppy. Frankel switches pronoun usage based on where the child is in her determination process. At that age, it’s a very fluid thing and can be a bit confusing for the reader. I just want to keep things a bit simpler here.
Frankel creates a charming family. Even though Poppy is the main focus, we get to know her parents and all her brothers a bit as well. The boys are suitably silly, a phenomenon I’ve experienced in our family. And there are some awfully sweet moments as their creative dad tells them stories at bedtime. However, one member of our book group thought the family was unrealistically perfect.
Poppy struggles with her situation, and also with the process of just making friends in a new place. She has all the normal growing up challenges, and then her own specific situation. Her parents are much more understanding than many parents would be. They accept her uniqueness from day one, although they also have many questions and concerns.
The other adults in the story are less comfortable with Poppy’s undecided nature. More often, they make judgements and have less flexible expectations than her parents. And the other kids experience all of that, mixed together with childish immaturity.
The way Claude becomes Poppy then Claude then Poppy reminded me of the concept of liminal spaces. They are the in between places that we often just skip right over, and they can be physical, mental, or emotional. Freshwater, written by Akwaeke Emezi is a more adult novel of those spaces in gender identity. I would also recommend pairing this book with Janet Mock’s memoir called Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More.
I recommend this fictional exploration of a family’s journey through transgender questions.