It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, but most important, it will help you understand.
I enjoyed reading This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel more than any other book this year; it’s that good. Frankel has a perfect ear for dialogue, a great sense of humor, a considerable amount of insight into family dynamics, and all the skills a good storyteller needs. As soon as I put the book down, I ordered her two other novels (Goodbye for Now and The Atlas of Love), which ought to tell you how strongly I felt.
The novel tells the story of Rosie and Penn and their five children. I wish I could tell you this is a typical American family, but they’re anything but (and maybe there is no such thing anyway). Rosie is an emergency room doctor and the family’s breadwinner. Penn is an aspiring writer, making him, in effect, a stay-at-home dad. All five children are born boys, but the youngest decides at a very early age that he’s really a girl. His parents are nervous but accepting, and Claude becomes Poppy, wearing dresses to school. The school’s principal, nurse, and kindergarten teacher and those of Poppy’s young classmates who notice, don’t seem to mind, and her four older brothers are protective and helpful. In time, though, Rosie realizes that Wisconsin might not be the best place for Poppy to hit puberty.
Penn and Rosie uproot the family and move to Seattle, which has a reputation of being more accepting, but they make the mistake of keeping Poppy’s penis a secret. School officials and one set of neighbors know the truth, but Poppy’s friends, especially her soulmate Aggie, have no idea what’s under Poppy’s skirt. Frankel lets the reader know early on that this is an unsustainable and mistaken path, and the tension in the middle section of the book is all about when and how the secret will come out—and what the response will be when it does.
Among the book’s many strengths is the light it shines on the difficult decisions that parents must make about what’s truly important to a vulnerable youngster, especially—but not only—one with more than the usual needs. It becomes a question of balancing what will make the child happy with what society will accept (which has the potential of making life much more difficult and unhappy). And it’s not just Poppy. The four older brothers all feel the burden of the secret they’re carrying, to say nothing of the abrupt move from their friends and school in Wisconsin to a new world in Seattle.
If the book has a fault, it is that the members of this unusual family, as well as many (not all) of those they interact with, are exceptionally good people—open and understanding and willing to help. In short, a bit too perfect. The title of the novel—This Is How It Always Is—isn’t a statement of fact. It’s more a hopeful expression: This is how it always ought to be.
And that’s exactly what so often brought tears to my eyes. Despite all the problems facing Poppy, the novel has an optimistic and hopeful tone. Reading about and living with these good people seemed to be the perfect elixir for the times and the world we live in. What could be more fulfilling than spending a few hours with these good and decent people?