We learn a lot about the Walsh-Adams family before they arrive in Seattle.
Rosie and Penn meet in college, and it’s cute. She’s an ER doctor, and he’s an impossibly lovely person getting his MFA in writing. They’re companionate AF. Fast-forward a few years, and they’re living in a big old house in Wisconsin with five children they think are boys. But then the youngest child, Claude, starts wearing a dress. Claude wants to see a princess as a main character in the father’s bedtime stories. Shortly before kindergarten, Claude briefly identifies as a “fairy child” before fully emerging as a girl named Poppy.
And then the teacher needs to know which pronoun. And the school district needs to know which bathroom. And Rosie needs to do a million things, but mostly reckon with whether she’s “losing” a child or “gaining” one or both. And the other kids worry about bullying and their own reputation. And Penn is still great. And Poppy seems to be doing just fine, but is she really?
Then there are a few moments of violence. After those moments, and after a lot of research, the family turns toward Seattle, a city where it’s supposedly “so far past tolerant that heterosexual reviewers complained that they felt awkward holding hands at some brunch places and were treated rudely by the waitstaff.” In a new town, the family faces a new question: Do they tell their neighbors that their girl has a penis? Or do they start fresh, assuming that the genitals of their six-year-old are nobody’s fucking business?
This Is How It Always Is, Northwest writer Laurie Frankel’s third novel, explores the trials, tribulations, questions, and unbridled delights that come along with raising a trans child. Though Poppy is only one of the five children, and though the socially constructed disconnect between her genitals and her gender enter the realm of public concern, as Frankel writes, for only about two percent of her life, Frankel focuses the story on Rosie’s concerns about Poppy.
That’s because the world seems to be focused on concerns about Poppy. What will the first day of school be like—for a girl who has a penis!? What will a sleepover be like—for a girl who has a penis?! Can a five-year-old even really know whether or not they’re a girl with a penis? If they don’t, should you encourage them one way or the other? What if gender is a spectrum?!
Good city liberals might want to toss the book out the window at page 100 and start shouting: “WHO CARES?! Rigid gender binaries are so STUPID.” But we all know who cares. Rosie’s worries originate from a desire to protect her child from harm. Though the answers to her questions about the consequences of sudden genital discovery seem like they should be beside the point of raising a child in the United States, the problem is that they’re not. And, as a doctor and parent, Rosie sees plenty of evidence of that.
The story is told in close third person, and since the narrator primarily shadows Rosie, Frankel’s sentences mostly reflect Rosie’s personality. They’re practical, calmly but thoroughly analytical, occasionally gritty, occasionally clever. They mostly tell it to you straight—but in moments of power, they swing into a literary register that lets the language do more of the explaining than the explaining does. “Rosie went to check on the worm-girl so she could finish her shift so she could go home and start packing and go home.” This strategy makes for easy reading. I blew through the 323 pages in two days, but I was on a deadline. Your book club may need a whole week.
Ultimately, the book, like all books (and like Poppy), is a story about the power of stories. More specifically, a fairy tale (get it?). It even starts with a “Once upon a time” and ends with an “ever after.” But it’s not sanitized, and the pages aren’t gilt. It’s the old-fashioned kind of story that shows how cruel people can be to each other, and also how selfless—the kind children can understand but that adults can really feel.