‘This Is How It Always Is’ by Laurie Frankel tells the story of a family dealing with the intricacies of having a trans daughter
“This is Claude. He’s five years old, the youngest of five brothers, and loves peanut butter sandwiches. He also loves wearing a dress, growing his hair long, and dreams of becoming a princess.”
So goes the blurb for Laurie Frankel’s third novel This is How it Always Is, a humane and beautifully realised book that centres on a family’s struggle to cope with the gender dysphoria of its youngest member.
Laurie Frankel has drawn on her own personal experience, crafting a thoroughly enjoyable and realistic portrait of a modern family, one that constantly subverts and side-swipes your expectations to the point that that you’ll give up halfway trying to second guess where it’s headed next.
Written in three parts, the book opens with Rosie and Penn, an ER doctor and aspiring novelist respectively, bringing up four boys in Wisconsin. Rosie has always yearned for a daughter, a wish she had finally hoped would come true until Claude, her fifth son, arrives.
The family is a close-knit gang and, although numerous, none of them fade into the background; each has a story to tell and is given the space to tell it.
With Rosie often working late, the evening bedtime story becomes the point to which they all gravitate, with the boys entranced by Penn’s nightly (and knightly) tales of the Princess Stephanie and her prince charming. Claude especially takes the stories to heart and starts wearing a princess dress around the house.
When he refuses to take it off before school one morning, protesting that his girl friends are allowed to wear dresses, Rosie tells him that boys don’t usually wear dresses and tights to school. ‘I’m not usually,’ he replies, thus signalling the beginning of the family’s difficult journey, where clothing choices turn out to be the least of their problems.
After protracted discussions with the school, the family decide that Claude should start attending as Poppy. In a particularly touching scene, Penn sits at the back of the class on Poppy’s first day waiting for disaster to strike, only for the pupils to pretty much ignore her arrival.
However, this positive start doesn’t last long. The family are soon sent reeling when the double-whammy of a disastrous playdate and a college assault lead to a painful decision. They pull out a map and decide to move.
This is hugely liberating for Poppy. She can start as herself from day one, but her now-teenage brothers aren’t so lucky. They are disorientated and frustrated, suddenly forced to abandon the life they had built for themselves.
They are torn between protecting the little sister they adore and resenting the secrets they are constantly forced to keep. Nothing is plain sailing and when work threatens to overwhelm Rosie, Laurie Frankel makes a brave, if disorientating choice for the third act, but one that entirely pays off.
While books featuring transgendered youth have mainly focussed on the young adult and teen market with the young character at their core, this is very definitely a book for adults. While Poppy is a well-drawn, charming character, it is Penn and Rosie who are the book’s foundations and ultimately steal the show.
They are a couple who learn very quickly when to hold and when to fold, what not to tell the neighbours and the teachers, and perhaps most importantly, what battles to pick. Honest, funny, and fearless, you’ll want to go out with them for pints.
Under the Udala Trees
Also just released in paperback is Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees. Critically acclaimed on its initial publication, it centres on Ijeoma, a young Igbo girl caught up in the Biafran civil war in the late 1960s, and the relationship she strikes up with Amina, a woman from a rival tribe.
A compelling story that brings the period and its location vividly to life.
This review of This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel was originally found in the February 2017 Issue of GCN (Issue 326) which is available to read in full here.