This is How It Always Is

Review From User :

"Well. Usually boys don't wear dresses to preschool," Rosie admitted carefully. "Or tights."
"I'm not usually," said Claude. This, Rosie reflected, even at the time, was true.
I've been going back and forth on whether I wanted to read this for a while. On the one hand, the premise interested me, the critics' reviews have been gushing, and the average GR rating is impressive. On the other hand, the few negative reviews have been calling it words like "sentimental", and even Kirkus begrudgingly admitted that it is "cloying at times". Those are two things that can turn me off a book right away.

But, for whatever reason, This is How It Always Is was the exception to the rule.

Is it sentimental I mean, sure, maybe... but it was also a deeply emotional reading experience for me, too. Is it sweet, nice, neat I would argue not. There is much in this book that warmed my heart, but to dismiss its struggles as too easy, too nice and too easily solved is to dismiss the gender dysphoria and violent transphobia as something that is easy.

At its heart, This is How It Always Is is a book about all seven members of the Walsh-Adams family. I love family drama/saga style books so this was right up my alley. They are a loving, hilarious, complex and dysfunctional family, all trying to do right by one another (and screwing up many times along the way). I was utterly charmed.

After four boys, Rosie and Penn are sure their fifth child will be a girl... until Claude arrives. It will be a few more years before they realize that their first predictions weren't exactly wrong. Drawing from her own experiences, the author explores how the family reacts to the realization that Claude (now Poppy) is transgender. Rosie and Penn instinctively try to protect their child by moving to the supposedly more liberal Seattle. However, instead of celebrating who Poppy is, they keep it a secret and urge her brothers to do the same.

Like most secrets, the weight of hiding Poppy bears down on all of them, especially Poppy herself. The characters note the irony that they are hiding the "fake" Poppy, and the real Poppy is the one her schoolmates and neighbours have known all along. Eventually, of course, everything blows up in their faces.

I found it very easy to become absorbed in the story. I became angry at the transphobic and homophobic comments made by kids and adults, and frustrated at the smaller acts of misunderstanding as the Wisconsin teachers tried to accommodate a trans student whilst still enforcing the gender binary:
"Little boys do not wear dresses." Miss Appleton tried to channel her usual patience. "Little girls wear dresses. If you are a little boy, you can't wear a dress. If you are a little girl, you have to use the nurse's bathroom."
***
"Meaning if he is a girl, he has gender dysphoria, and we will accommodate that. If he just wants to wear a dress, he is being disruptive and must wear normal clothes."
Frankel highlights an ongoing problem in which schools try to recognize trans students but still demand they check one box or another, and adopt the expected characteristics of the selected "male" or "female". The ultimate issue is about more than accepting someone with XY chromosomes as a girl; it is also about being able to accept someone with facial hair and a deep voice as a girl, or as both a girl and boy, or as neither.
"This is a medical issue, but mostly it's a cultural issue. It's a social issue and an emotional issue and a family dynamic issue and a community issue. Maybe we need to medically intervene so Poppy doesn't grow a beard. Or maybe the world needs to learn to love a person with a beard who goes by 'she' and wears a skirt."
This is How It Always Is is an emotive read, but it also explores a lot of practical issues. Like the decisions parents can and cannot, should and should not, make for trans kids. Or kids in general. Throughout, Penn keeps up a long-running fairytale of Grumwald and Stephanie, painting in some rather obvious messages and parallels for his kids, which I suppose is what some would consider "sickly sweet" but hell, if he isn't the best dad ever.

I loved them all. I loved Rosie and her scientist's logic as a way of dealing with problems. I loved Penn and his sweet romanticism and hopefulness. I loved messed-up Roo and all his mistakes. I loved precocious Ben and how much he cares for Poppy. I loved the goofy twins who offered so much light and cheer in this book. And I loved Poppy. Of course I loved Poppy.

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This is how a family keeps a secret…and how that secret ends up keeping them.
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This is how a family lives happily ever after…until happily ever after becomes complicated.

This is how children change…and then change the world.

This is Claude. He’s five years old, the youngest of five brothers, and loves peanut butter sandwiches. He also loves wearing a dress, and dreams of being a princess.

When he grows up, Claude says, he wants to be a girl.

Rosie and Penn want Claude to be whoever Claude wants to be. They’re just not sure they’re ready to share that with the world. Soon the entire family is keeping Claude’s secret. Until one day it explodes.

This Is How It Always Is is a novel about revelations, transformations, fairy tales, and family. And it’s about the ways this is how it always is: Change is always hard and miraculous and hard again, parenting is always a leap into the unknown with crossed fingers and full hearts, children grow but not always according to plan. And families with secrets don’t get to keep them forever.

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