This is How it Always Is

Frankel, Laurie. This is How it Always Is. New York: Flatiron Books, 2017.

Book cover with title "This is How it Always Is" and author "Laurie Frankel" in large text over a curled orange peel.

Emergency room doctor Rosie and novelist Penn live a busy, happy life with their five rambunctious sons in Wisconsin. When their youngest, Claude, puts on a dress and doesn’t want to take it off, the family takes it in stride, encouraging his imaginative play and supporting his right to be who he is. But just before Claude starts kindergarten, he announces that he wants to wear dresses and bring a purse to school. He isn’t a boy after all; he wants to be a girl when he grows up.

This is How it Always Is follows the family as they struggle with personal fears and societal expectations, learn about transgender identities and unlearn previous misconceptions, and love and support Poppy, their daughter and sister.

There is a lot to like about this novel. The practicalities of childhood transition are remarkably detailed; Frankel describes parental discussions with teachers and principals, Poppy’s hair and clothing changes, school bathroom issues, and the frantic research undertaken by both parents. The character building is exceptional, too. Each member of the family has a distinct and interesting personality that is gradually revealed as the audience gets to know them, and each character’s strengths and flaws are portrayed in an empathetic way.

One of my favorite things about this novel is a metanarrative told by Penn. Each night, he tells his children a new installment of an ongoing story that has been created over several years. It’s a fantasy story that reflects the children’s lives and the lessons he wishes to impart. The central character, a prince, has pieces of each child’s personality, and the character is used to explore the everyday challenges each child faces. When Poppy articulates her desire to become a girl, a fairy is added to the story; and as Poppy struggles with fears of peer exclusion, the fairy character undergoes a similar ordeal.

Unfortunately, there are also some problematic aspects to This is How it Always Is. The only two nonwhite characters are painfully two-dimensional and only serve as providers of helpful guidance to the main character, Rosie (veering uncomfortably into Magical Negro territory). Mr. Tongo, a social worker at Rosie’s hospital, is described as being so ethnically ambiguous he could be “at least half a member” of any race or nationality (67).  Although he’s purportedly a friend of the parents, they never refer to him by his first name and they only speak to him when they want advice about their transgender daughter. And during a work trip to Thailand, Rosie meets K, a medic who teaches her about the Thai-specific gender identity kathoey. Kathoey is “one of the thing (sic) K stand (sic) for” (288). To provide a comparison, this would be like an American trans woman naming herself T for transgender.

Additionally, there is a strong moralizing tone throughout the novel about the dangers of secrets (read: nondisclosure of transgender identity). Soon after Poppy expresses her identity, Rosie treats a gunshot victim at the hospital. When the patient is discovered to be a transgender woman, Rosie has a vivid mental image of what happened: Jane Doe trying on a skirt and finding the one that’s “tight enough to be feminine but loose enough to hide her secret” (108), heading out to a frat party, and being attacked when her secret is discovered. The word secret is used a lot throughout the novel, specifically in reference to Rosie’s and Penn’s decision to allow Poppy to transition and not come out to her peers.

There is much foreshadowing about the perils of secrets: when the family moves to Seattle to provide a safer environment for Poppy, the eldest boy asks why they had to move if they were keeping Poppy a secret. Rosie (as narrator) muses that this was foresight “that secrets are miserable things, that secrets, be they deliberate or accidental, will out, and then it won’t matter where you live, for no place anywhere can protect you from the power and fallout of a secret once exploded” (140-141).

Of course, Poppy is eventually outed and suffers a great deal. Her friends are confused and upset that she didn’t confide in them; some of her peers are mean; and Poppy shaves her head in grief and tries to go back to being a boy for a time. After a period of crisis, the family heals and learns together that keeping secrets leads to pain and fear, but telling your story is the right thing to do: “You find out you’re not alone. And so does everyone else. That’s how everything gets better” (312).

The idea that nondisclosure of trans identity is secretive and therefore bad is deeply flawed. Sure, if every trans person in the world came out, many trans-ignorant people would learn and grow, and society might improve more quickly for trans people. On the other hand, many people would be murdered, imprisoned, fired, excommunicated, cast out of their families, ostracized by peers, and denied medical care. Coming out is a personal choice and is not objectively bad or good. I wish that this novel had treated coming out as a choice rather than a moral obligation.

I had complicated feelings about this book. As a trans person, I had trouble empathizing with Rosie, the main character. Rosie continuously misgenders Poppy, both in conversations and internal dialog. Poppy is referred to with he/him pronouns until Part II (page 119); and through the rest of the book, Rosie switches back and forth between pronouns, uses Poppy’s deadname several times, and questions whether Poppy is a real girl.

That said, Rosie’s reaction is normal for a parent. When a child transitions, the parents have a transition as well—they have to rethink everything they thought they knew about their child; they have to train themselves to use a new name and pronouns; they have to do a lot of learning very fast; and they have to come to terms with the potential violence their child may face. Even the best parents stumble, and accidental misgendering is very common. Many parents do not ever accept their trans children; Rosie never stops loving her child and does her best to learn and grow.

This is How it Always Is is a beautifully written, realistic novel about parenting a trans child. Although Poppy’s identity and experiences are a central focus, this book isn’t really about her; it’s about Rosie’s experience as a parent. Although I personally found it challenging as a trans reader, I do think it might be useful for parents of trans children—with the caveat that disclosure of trans identity is not a moral imperative.

Author Laurie Frankel is herself the parent of a trans child, and although this novel is not about her family, some of her experiences are undoubtedly reflected, particularly the conviction that hiding trans identity is dishonest.

I received a complimentary copy of This is How it Always Is in exchange for an honest review.

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About Charlie McNabb

Archivist, Folklorist, Librarian, Legend Tripper, and Queer Activist
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