Review: This Is How It Always Is
A tale of a family: the adversity they face may unite or destroy them
REVIEW: This Is How It Always Is by Laurel Frankel
This is a stunning novel by Laurie Frankel, depicting the transition of the youngest in a family of five children, from Claude to Poppy. While this book is fiction, it is loosely inspired by the author’s own life; her own child made the same transition at a young age. This personal inspiration bleeds into the storytelling, the novel feeling consistently real and raw throughout. The detailed capturing of a child struggling with their identity, and how this impacts the rest of the family, is both a guttural and beautiful read. Frankel does not shy away from the controversial or complicated elements of the issues at hand, the brutal honesty of the family’s battle with a society lagging behind the children it is raising shining through in moments of pain, betrayal, and above all, strength.
The story is intimate, depicting the complexities of the family dynamics, and the direct effect each member has on each other and the narrative arc. The parents, Rosie and Penn, are immediately empathetic and accepting of Poppy’s gender identity in this refreshing novel, rather than expressing the transphobia typically depicted in such stories. Their chief qualm is how to protect their daughter from the outside world, a fear that only grows with time as their biggest enemy—puberty—approaches. Tensions arise between the couple from time to time, however, as their opinions on how to tackle the dangers Poppy faces differ.
Each of the five children’s identities manage to exist distinctly rather than blend together, and each are valuable to the storyline where one might expect them to fade into the background. While the boys’ relationship with Poppy is predominantly accepting and loving, cracks of resentment and frustration begin to appear due to sacrifices they have to make to keep her secret, and it is this which results in the climax of the novel: her seemingly inevitable outing as a transgender child.
The anxiety of Poppy’s secret being exposed that swells throughout the novel comes to a head in a chaotic confusion of revelations: that her siblings have all failed to keep her secret, and everyone and no one is to blame. In a simultaneous eruption of professional issues, Rosie is forced to volunteer at a clinic in Thailand or lose her job, and elects to bring Poppy—who reverts back to the name "Claude" during this time of extreme distress—with her. This trip allows the pair to see outside of their personal turmoil, and understand their relative privilege in the face of poverty and tragedy they find at the run-down clinic Rosie is sent to. Poppy—presently Claude—becomes an English tutor to Thai children, and witnessing their happiness in spite of their comparative misfortune gives Poppy hope. The local attitude towards gender identity also allows both Poppy and Rosie to gain perspective on the topic; Poppy need not choose now, or ever, how she identifies; she can just be "Poppy".
The novel closes on a note of openness in that the issues are not entirely resolved; Poppy has yet to face puberty, and the family has yet to decide on how to handle the decisions coming their way—medical or otherwise. However, Poppy seems to have found herself again, and the family has a sense of peace once more. The family’s journey is not over, but the book reaches a satisfying conclusion that demonstrates the growth of each character throughout the novel. Frankel deftly handles the multifaceted issues at the heart of Poppy’s gender identity in a way that does not preach to readers, nor confuse them; the novel is honest, and reflects authentically the confusion and complexities of Poppy’s gender identity and, more generally, family life. This is How it Always Is is captivatingly well-written, and the multi-dimensional characters will capture readers’ hearts; they certainly did mine.