Friday, April 21, 2017

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Reviewed by Kristin

Rosie Walsh didn’t expect to fall in love with Penn Adams.  Set up by a friend of a friend, Rosie was a first year resident in the Madison, Wisconsin ER while Penn was a struggling writer working on what he would eventually call the “DN”—his damn novel.  Fast forward several years and they find themselves parents to five little boys.  They are a loving family who embrace the peculiarities of each and every child: Roosevelt, or “Roo”; Benjamin; twins Rigel and Orion; and lastly, Claude.

From the time that Claude could express himself, he was different from his brothers.  He spoke his first word at nine months: “baloney.”  (Not that the pediatrician believed them, but Claude did indeed form coherent syllables about a brother’s favorite lunchmeat.)  He was speaking in complete sentences by his first birthday and communicating his thoughts, feelings and desires to anyone who would listen.  A bright and precocious child, Claude rounded out the Walsh-Adams family perfectly.

There’s just one little unexpected bit—when Claude grows up, he wants to be a girl.

Penn and Rosie are supportive of all of their children; they are perfectly willing to let Claude choose his own clothing and accessories, even if those choices might be a dress fashioned out of an older brother’s long t-shirt, sparkly barrettes, or a red patent leather purse made into a lunch tote.  As Claude’s Pre-K year stretches on, he becomes more aware of the gender norms to which he is expected to conform while at school, and withdraws into himself.  Rosie and Penn become concerned as Claude grows sadder and sadder as he struggles to reconcile external expectations with how he, or possibly she, feels.

After much soul searching, the family decides to relocate to Seattle, which they believe will be a more liberal and accepting town.  Claude goes to Kindergarten as Poppy, a bubbly and happy little girl.  As Poppy blooms, her family struggles not with loving her as she is, but with the secrets kept from the outside world.  Where is the line between what is nobody’s business, and the truth about who someone is?  The Walsh-Adams family finds that it hurts to keep secrets, and secrets cannot be kept forever.

Frankel wrote this story of a family with a transgender child in a loving and sensitive manner, based on her real-life experiences.  Frankel has commented in interviews that This Is How It Always Is is not a retelling of her family’s story but that it does incorporate elements of her daughter’s experience.  At the time of publication in 2017, Frankel’s daughter was still much younger than Poppy is by the end of the book, so it is not entirely biographical, but looks ahead to the choices that must be made when a child’s gender identity does not match their outer appearance.

Frankel’s writing is fluid and moves the narrative along in a way that kept me completely involved in the story.  I appreciated the love of parents who cared infinitely more about the safety and stability of their children than about what other people thought.  As a writer, Penn created a bedtime tradition with all the children piling onto one bed or another, telling a story that never ends, fashioning princes, witches and night fairies living in the forests and hillsides.  This sense of magic is imbued in Frankel’s latest, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

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