This is How it Always Is tells the story of the family of Rosie Walsh and Penn Adams, a doctor and a writer respectively, who fall in love, marry, and have five children. The novel opens with Rosie hoping that her fifth pregnancy will bring her a girla girl she might name Poppy, after her younger sister who died of cancer when Rosie was just twelve. But the baby is a boy, Claude. Claude is quick to walk and talk and by the age of three he is thinking about what he would like to be when he grows upa cat, or a vet, a dinosaur, a scientist, or...a girl. So begins the transition of the youngest of the Walsh-Adams children to become a girl called Poppy.
The story that unfolds of Poppy's childhood is fascinating in many ways. First it's a window into the life of a transgender child. Although Poppy's early years are told from the point of view of her parents and their concerns, as she grows Poppy's perspective develops. Issues of schools, bathrooms, (see 'Beyond the Book') and sleepovers inevitably arise. She is also part of a large family and the implications of having a transgender sibling affects everyone. Part of trying to create a safe and happy childhood for her involves uprooting the family and moving from Wisconsin to Seattle. And then there is the constant question of what to revealor notabout Poppy's past as a boy. It's a secret the whole family will struggle to keep.
The novel is also an insightful study of the more commonplace joys and perils of parenthood. Rosie and Penn have a family set-up that works for them. Rosie, as a doctor, works long hours so it makes sense that Penn, an aspiring writer, takes on the lion's share of laundry, cooking and homework. Their relationship is good-humored and tender but at times the responsibilities of parentingparticularly a child like Poppyand the choices in terms of hormones and surgery, threaten to overwhelm them.
Over the years, Penn narrates a long-running fairy-tale to his wife and children that both entertains and informs their lives. His fictional characters, Grumwald and Princess Stephanie, face challenges that often parallel their own. Penn's stories help the family understand their lives in a world that makes innumerable judgments about people based on their gender and where change is always around the corner.
Certainly this is an issue-driven novel. The author, Laurie Frankel, is the parent of a transgender child. As her fictional creation Rosie makes clear, "this is a medical issue, but mostly it's a cultural issue. It's a social issue and an emotional issue and a family dynamic issue and a community issue." For all the sensitive and difficult nature of the subject, Frankel has written a novel that is above all endearing and at times witty. When, for example, Poppy is about to dance with a boy at a fifth-grade Valentine Party and she silently urges the school principal not to play a slow dance, we read that she is in luck, not because the principal would not want to, but because the music is on a playlist created by someone else on his phone. All the principal knows to do is make calls.
Frankel has brought a believable, lovable transgender child to life in a believable, lovable American family. This is thoughtful, insightful and pleasurable read. I highly recommend it for both adults and a YA audience.
This review is from the February 1, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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