This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (Headline £16.99) is a brave, generous and audacious novel, which tackles the impact on a family coming to terms with having a transgender child. The story is told with great skill, humour and tenderness and presents challenging situations and complicated family dynamics with frankness and humanity.
It is about a family from Wisconsin who are forced to move states when their five-year old son’s safety is threatened because he dresses and clearly identifies as a girl. Once settled in Seattle, it becomes easier not to mention that “Poppy” used to be a boy, so the family becomes burdened with a secret that impacts differently on each of them.
The novel follows Poppy to the age of 10, before puberty starts, but includes questions about hormone treatment and the possibility of surgery. Poppy has four fiercely protective brothers who are each, deeply affected by her transformation. Roo, the eldest, feels resentful at the attention Poppy receives and starts acting up.
The parents, Rosie and Penn, are supportive of Poppy’s choices, though they deal with the issue of transgender in different ways. Rosie, a doctor, looks for clinical answers, while Penn, a writer and stay-at-home dad, a little unrealistically, wants to create a “fairy-tale” ending for his daughter.
Laurie Frankel is herself the parent of a transgender child, though the family never had to hide their daughter’s gender history.
Nor were they subjected to rejection or prejudice as her imagined family are. But she was persuaded by her publishers that her novel needed more plot and conflict. And, perhaps as a result, there are too many characters, making it difficult, for example, to differentiate between the four older boys. Overall, however, the book is well-constructed and certainly readable.
Frankel says parenting a transgender child has taught her to keep an open mind about what the future holds. This is probably a good lesson for all parents. In an interview with the New Zealand Herald, Frankel said: “I hope the transgender aspect serves as a metaphor for anything that’s not quite the norm… We need to love more, tolerate more and open our hearts more because that’s what will make the world a better place”. This is Frankel’s third novel and I found it tender, moving, and educational.