Let’s forget about politics for a second, okay? Let’s totally ignore the raging debates that have hit our country in the past year about…well, everything, really…and let’s focus on subjects like kindness, empathy, and human rights instead. At the most basic level, that’s what This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel is about. However, the message of this book runs so much deeper, and I can honestly say that this book made me a more understanding person and a better mother.
I know. That’s a lot to assert about a piece of fiction, isn’t it?
This Is How It Always Is is about the Walsh-Adams family–Rosie, Penn, Roo, Ben, Rigel, Orion, and Claude. Although Rosie did everything she knew to do in order to become pregnant with a girl, her youngest child was born a son–Claude; however, Claude is not like his older brothers. Instead of GI Joes, he prefers Barbie dolls. Instead of jeans and tee shirts, he prefers twirly dresses. And instead of dreaming of growing up to be a fireman or football player or teacher, he dreams of becoming a girl. What starts off as simply indulging Claude’s “pretend play” quickly becomes much more, and the Walsh-Adams family begins adjusting to the idea of having a daughter and sister named Poppy instead of a son and brother named Claude. Their acceptance and love of Poppy is undeniable, but when her safety in the real world comes into question, they move across the country and start new lives where Poppy can simply be Poppy and not “Poppy who used to be Claude.”
Laurie Frankel has crafted a magnificent book with a poignant story, wonderfully developed characters, and valuable lessons. When I finished the book, I knew that I would be processing the emotions it evoked for quite some time and carrying the priceless lessons it taught much longer than that. To be quite honest, it evoked such powerful emotions that I had to take a break for a couple of days before I could finish the book, at one point. I found myself connected to Rosie’s character on a deeply emotional level, especially, and following her journey–from falling in love with Penn as a medical student to a hard-working mother of five–was fascinating to me. Any mother or father can related to Rosie’s and Penn’s struggles to make the best decisions possible for all of their children and their desires to ensure that they be safe, healthy, and happy. However, as the mother of a child with autism, I found that their concerns about Poppy’s unique situation were ultimately the same as the parent of any child with unique needs. We worry that others will judge our kids, that they will be picked on, or that they will be taken advantage of or abused. We worry that life will be hard for our kids. We worry that they won’t live their best lives. We just want our kids to be loved and accepted for who they are on the inside. That’s it.
But isn’t that what ALL parents really want?
Rosie and Penn aren’t perfect parents. They make mistakes and learn as they go, and Roo’s storyline is a particularly painful reminder that although Poppy’s needs are unique, they are not the only needs that exist in the Walsh-Adams family. However, Rosie and Penn and the things they learn about being parents to five very different children provide excellent lessons in how to raise good humans.
All of this is not to say that the plot and deeply moving lessons in the book are ALL This Is How It Always Is has to offer. The writing itself is unique and hypnotic. Frankel’s way of weaving humor throughout the book was entertaining and made the Walsh-Adams family realistic and relatable. Any family with five children (including twin teenagers) is bound to have its fair share of chaotic moments, and witnessing those normal family interactions with all the humor they tend to involve allows readers to take notice of the fact that life moves forward, no matter how heavy our worries and secrets may be. Frankel’s sometimes long, rambling sentences are frank and full of references to earlier details in the book, and they made the rhythm of the book completely enchanting, just like the fairy tales Penn told his children every night before bed. The characters themselves are lovable, and I absolutely adored everything about Claude/Poppy, especially, but I found myself drawn to them all.
Ultimately, Laurie Frankel has written an absolutely beautiful novel about loving people–especially our children–no matter what. In her author’s note at the end, she says, “I know this book will be controversial, but honestly? I keep forgetting why.” I keep coming back to those words, over and over again, and the power of such simple statements is undeniable. Understanding the lives of transgender children is impossible without having a front seat. Although this book is a far cry from a front seat, it’s a valuable peek inside their world. That peek has helped me become a better mother to my own children–and a better human, in general.