This Is How It Always Is is a sort of fairy tale about a mom who wished for a daughter, a dad who tells stories, siblings who watch out for each other, and how even if you do everything just right, life is never easy. This is the story of parents doing their best to raise their transgender child in a world that fears and rejects those who don’t fit cultural norms. It is clever, funny and heartbreaking, and enlightening. Frankel happens to be the parent of a transgender child and brings her parental insight into her storytelling while also making it clear in the afterward and in interviews that this novel is NOT the story of her child; it is fiction but it also contains truths — just like fairy tales, if you think about it.
The novel is divided into 4 parts. Part I takes place in Wisconsin and takes us from the conception of Rosie and Penn’s fifth child through their decision to move to Seattle (with side trips backwards to Rosie’s childhood and to Rosie and Penn’s courtship). Rosie, who is an ER doctor, and Penn, who is a writer/storyteller, have had four sons already when Claude is born. Claude is a precocious child, and when he indicates at a young age that he would like to dress as a girl, his parents take it in stride. He’s young and dress up is harmless fun. With time, however, it is clear that Claude’s interest in dressing as a girl goes deeper than playtime fun. He wants to wear girl clothes all the time, even to school. Rosie and Penn draw a line at this but also notice that Claude seems more withdrawn. They consult with a social worker/counselor at the hospital, Mr. Tongo (who is a like a fairy godfather or Glinda the Good Witch), who praises them for their support of Claude’s gender dysphoria at home, but also points out that forcing conformity upon Claude outside the home is having a harmful effect upon him. Rosie and Penn decide to allow Claude to wear girl clothing to school over the protestations of their oldest sons Roo and Ben. The boys know that Claude will become a target, but Claude is overjoyed and transformed after being allowed to dress as he pleases. Yet, after a couple of deeply disturbing events, Rosie is determined that the family must leave Wisconsin for Claude’s safety.
In Part II, the family has taken up residence in Seattle. Claude has taken on the name Poppy, and the family lets no one know that Poppy is a biological male. Well, not quite no one; Rosie mentions to their new nextdoor neighbors that Poppy is transgender, and the neighbors, who have a daughter Poppy’s age, ask the family to keep that information quiet. They are fine with Poppy and their daughter Aggie being friends, but they don’t think Aggie could handle that information. Rosie and Penn consult their friend Mr. Tongo about the question of secrecy versus openness regarding Poppy’s gender, and Mr. Tongo’s advice is to keep it quiet. First of all, it’s a private matter and nobody’s business, and second of all, Poppy is just 6 years old and shouldn’t have to take on the job of educating people about being transgender. And so the big secret is buried for a while. Poppy is loving life and has a new group of friends with whom she spends her time. Meanwhile, there is trouble in paradise as eldest son Roo goes through his own transformation. Roo is the child who is having the hardest time adjusting to the move; he had friends and a great life in Wisconsin but has not been able to replicate that in Seattle. Ben, who is younger than Roo but who skipped a grade and so has classes with him, is hopelessly in love with Aggie’s older sister. And the twins — Orion and Rigel — are irrepressible cut ups and the life of every party. The brothers all love Poppy, but it is getting harder and harder for everyone to keep the big secret. As if that weren’t enough, Penn and Rosie find themselves on opposite sides of the question of what to do for Poppy moving forward. Should they start looking into hormone blockers and surgeries (Penn) or should they wait and see what Poppy wants to do, just in case she changes her mind about her gender (Rosie). This fraught situation explodes when now 10-year-old Poppy’s secret is revealed at school. She is devastated and falls into depression. Rosie, whose specialty is calm in the face of chaos, takes her youngest child with her on a medical mission to Thailand. In Thailand (Part III), far from home, both Rosie and Claude/Poppy will try to figure out what they need to do in order to move forward. I found this section of the novel to be terribly interesting, but I cannot say more without revealing spoilers. Part IV is short and involves life back in Seattle after the trip.
Throughout the novel, Penn tells his fairy tale about Prince Grumwald — first to his girlfriend Rosie and later to their children. This story is a work in progress and is linked to the plot since Penn models his fairy tale characters on his children and what’s going on in their lives. It is Penn’s way of trying to guide his children without moralizing. I like this plot device for a few reasons. I think it’s a signal to the reader that this novel, itself, is a sort of fairy tale. There is quite a bit in the plot that might seem unbelievable. Mr. Tongo is a very strange character, for example, and the fact that the entire family (including grandma) completely supports Claude/Poppy without reservation seems a bit too easy. There’s no family counseling to speak of, which stood out for me as a bit odd. But then again, I think the point is perhaps to portray a family that handles the transgender issue well in order to show the reader that, even so, enormous problems will arise. Penn and Rosie want very much to make their children’s lives easy, which is natural. All parents want to do this, but the thing about life is that it is not easy. And, as Penn says at one point in the novel, perhaps easy is not even what we should wish for. The other thing about fairy tales is that they tend to have a “happily ever after,” but then again, the stories never really end — we just don’t hear about what happens next. I love that Frankel opens the novel with a quote from Sondheim’s Into the Woods — a great musical about what happens after the fairy tales “end”.
At the end of this novel, we know how some things have turned out, but we don’t know how it all ends. And that’s life; it goes forward and it’s not easy. Perhaps though the point is not to strive for an easy life but rather to know how to live it without being afraid. It is incredibly difficult to do this, especially if you are a parent, especially if you are a parent of a child who does not fit in and will be a target for hate. You want to save them from the evil in the world, but there is magic in showing your children how not to be afraid to speak up, how not to hide, how to tell their stories even when it’s difficult. It’s the only way to live.