The Walsh-Adams have a lovingly chaotic life in a creaky, rambling Wisconsin farmhouse, where tending to the daily needs of their four rambunctious young boys has become a perfectly imperfect synchronized dance.
So when Penn, the stay-at-home novelist in waiting, and Rosie, emergency-room doctor, decide to try, just once more, for a girl, “how will you manage” is easier to answer than “why are you having another child?”
For Rosie, “why” is rooted in the day her only sibling, Poppy, 10, died of cancer. The daughter she was certain she was about to deliver would have hair long enough to braid, “picking up where Poppy had left off.” But then came baby Claude, and the “how” and “why” took a backseat to “who.”
He’s a precocious little boy, and it becomes apparent Claude isn’t like his brothers. His first word is “bologna.” He crawled at 6 months and spoke full sentences before he was 1.
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Such advanced skills are passed off as the byproduct of being the youngest in a house of five boys. But it’s more than that. More than the cakes he likes to bake, more than the musical he writes for his brother’s birthday and the princess dress he fashions out of his mother’s old clothes.
At 5 years old, Claude declares he wants to be a girl, and the heart of This Is How It Always Is, Laurie Frankel’s third book, is how this modern-day family manages the unexpected challenges, sadness and ugliness in a world that has little understanding or tolerance for someone who has gender dysphoria.
In a large family of unique personalities, it’s understandable how Rosie and Penn don’t panic or overreact to Claude’s choice of girl’s clothing.
After all, he’s just a little boy for whom change will be natural and constant. They are patient and supportive, letting him explore who he wants to be, just as they parent his brothers, silently believing that this too shall pass, yet knowing that it is deeper than they can admit.
This book is a work of love by Frankel, drawing from her experiences as a mother of a transgendered child. There are moments in the book when the author conveys the fear for this trusting child, such as when he wears a pink bikini in public, and one cringes for his fragile emotions and safety.
Penn and Rosie deflect the stares, whispers and questions that day with humor, and Claude is none the wiser.
Frankel tells the reader, through the title of this book, that parents sometimes have to make decisions for their children’s happiness without enough information and without knowing how it will turn out — this is how it always is.
With that in mind, it’s decided with Claude’s input, that he will attend kindergarten dressed like a girl. Claude settles into his class, not without family angst and concern, but with few questions asked by his young classmates, some expected teasing by older children and skittish educators, who are pressing the child and his parents for a gender assignment.
Is he a boy who wants to be a girl? Is he a girl with a boy’s body? He doesn’t know why he wants to wear dresses, he just knows it feels right, and his parents know it makes him happy.
Rosie, Penn and the brothers, even with all of their questions and fears, are fiercely protective of Claude, who is calling himself Poppy. Not everyone is as accepting in Madison, Wis., and after two tragic and scary encounters, the family moves to Seattle.
This time, though, they decide to keep Poppy’s gender a secret. After everything that’s happened to this family — the doubts and the questions with neither a right nor a wrong answer and the agony in arriving at an even workable solution — the reader may ask why Rosie and Penn choose this route.
It’s a fair question, especially when secrets fail, as this one eventually does, and the damage is crushing for Poppy and nearly fatal for the family.
Without giving away too much, readers looking for a clear resolution might be disappointed. Sometimes answers present themselves in ways only time can reveal, from faraway and unexpected sources and in places not easily seen.
As the author says, “happy is harder than it sounds.”
Frankel, in her message to readers on the back book jacket, writes that the “characters come to realize that telling their stories and secrets is hard and scary and sometimes dangerous, but they must do it anyway because that’s how life gets better for everyone.”
Parents who are in similar situations may find this book helpful, even in just knowing they aren’t alone as they search for answers.
For certain, there will be those who wouldn’t do what Rosie and Penn do for young Poppy. Frankel has tackled this controversial topic in a warm, funny and honest way and one that will undoubtedly spark thought and conversation.
This Is How It Always Is
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
- By Laurie Frankel
- Flatiron Books, $25.99
- Audio: Macmillan Audio, $39.99; narrated by actress Gabra Zackman.