This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (eProof) - Rosie and Penn always wanted a daughter. Four sons later, they decide to try one last time - and their beautiful little boy Claude is born. Life continues happily for this big, loving family until the day when Claude says that, when he grows up, he wants to be a girl.
As far as Rosie and Penn are concerned, bright, funny and wonderful Claude can be whoever he or she wants. But as problems begin at school and in the community, the family faces a seemingly impossible dilemma: should Claude change, or should they and Claude try to change the world?
Warm, touching and bittersweet, THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS is a novel about families, love and how we choose to define ourselves. It will make you laugh and cry - and see the world differently. From Goodreads.
Trigger Warning: Homophobic and ableist language, and transphobic behaviour feature in this book.
I don't often contemporary adult novels, but this is one I just couldn't pass up, not when it's about a family, and how they work out how best to help and support their trans daughter and sister. This is such a beautiful and moving novel, I absolutely loved it.
When Rosie and Penn's three-year-old son wants to wear a dressing-up play dress, of course they allow it. Claude is just a child, after all, and there's no harm in playing - you don't need to force gender roles when into a child's playtime. But it soon becomes clear that this is more than just their son wanting to play - their son is actually their daughter. What do you do when you realise your young child is transgender? Poppy, as she chooses to be called, is just a child; she doesn't understand that we don't live in a perfect world, that there are those in society who have a problem with girls who have a penis, or boys who have a vagina. She also doesn't know about puberty, and the affects it will have on her body. Poppy is just a girl, and that's that. But Rosie and Penn do not what people can be like, they do know what puberty will do to her body. There are certain decisions that have to be made, decisions that Poppy is too young to make herself, or even fully understand. Her parents have to make them for her. They love their daughter, they fully accept her as she is, but they know the obstacles Poppy will face. You want to protect your children, but there are some things you can't protect your children from, so what do you do?
What I loved about this novel - that's told over a number of years, from when Poppy is born to when Poppy is ten - was how much love these parents have for their daughter. They're shocked and lost at first, but they do all they can to help their daughter be their daughter. They seek advice, they let her nursery know and discuss support for their daughter, they buy her new clothes - dresses and skirts and pretty tops - and allow her to grow out her hair. One day Claude went to nursery, and the next, Poppy. Although terrifying, as children can be cruel, it goes smoothly. But when problems do occur, Rosie and Penn have to make decisions, make choices, but they can't see into the future, they don't know the consequences of their decisions - for Poppy and the rest of their family - and nor do they always agree on the what is best for Poppy. I thought this was particularly powerful, because we get to see that there are several possibilities, but also that there is no definitive "right" way of raising a transgender child. Both think their way of doing things is the right thing for Poppy, both think each other's way of doing things will be detrimental for Poppy. Sometimes they agree. Sometimes they believe they don't have to make a decision right now, and sometimes not deciding has it's own consequences.
What is wonderful is that This Is How It Always Is is written by an author who is a parent of a transgender child. This book isn't a memoir, it's fiction, but there is a knowing to this story; Rosie and Penn's thoughts and worries, questions and opinions, the choices before them and the decisions they make, you read knowing that Frankel knows how Rosie and Penn feel, has faced these choices and made decisions, has thought about the future and the obstacles that lay ahead. This isn't a black and white story, there are no definite rights and definite wrongs when it comes to raising a transgender child you're trying to help, love and support. There's uncertainty and there's worry, and there's trying to do your best, but sometimes you make mistakes - but this is how it always is when you rise a child, trans or otherwise; parenting is full of questions and worries and decisions that have to be made, there's no manual for parenting, no matter what your child's gender identity.
I also loved how this wasn't just Rosie and Penn's story, nor that it was just Poppy's story; it was the family's story. Poppy's older brothers, Roo, Ben, Orion and Rigel are all affected by the choices their parents make in trying to do right by Poppy. And sometimes what's right for Poppy has negative impacts on her brothers. But they also love their sister; they completely accept her, but they worry for her, too. Sometimes they think their parents are making the wrong choices. They go to school, they know what school children can be like, and they're scared. Roo especially. He goes to his parents, he has a go at them, he pleads with them. But he is a child himself, and can't see the bigger picture. Even so, it was still so wonderful to this boy, and all the others, love and care for their sister, and want her to be safe, too. It was just gorgeous!
There were a few times where I frowned in concern when it came to the pronouns and the name used, but as I read on, it was Rosie and Penn getting used to the changes, and, later, trying to do what they thought Poppy wanted. When Claude is no more and Poppy is here instead, there's a while where her parents struggle to get used to the change in pronouns, and still sometimes refer to Poppy as he/him. It was like a habit they had to break, a change in the way they thought about their child. Later, when Poppy experiences something awful, and starts presenting as male again, Rosie goes back to calling her "Claude" and using male pronouns, believing that while she's struggling to work things out, this is what she wants. Again, I started getting worried; Poppy was still Poppy, she was still a girl, and that hadn't changed because she experienced something awful, and decided to present as male. But again, it became clear that this was down to the characters, not down to the author; Penn still called Poppy "Poppy", still used female pronouns. It's difficult, because I can completely see why Rosie thought what she did, why she chose to call Poppy "Claude", this was her again trying to do what was best for her child, doing what she thought would make her child happy while her child is struggling with how she feels. But at the same time, I disagreed with it. I think there were times when Rosie didn't fully grasp things, didn't fully understand what being transgender meant, and so sometimes she makes decisions and mistakes because of that. She knows what "transgender" means, but if Poppy is Claude again, then maybe Claude isn't transgender. When the case was Poppy was trying to be someone society would accept, because they weren't accepting her as herself, and I don't think Rosie fully understood that at the time. Which I think is probably pretty realistic.
There was another thing I had a big problem with. There is use of the word "spastic" twice, which I really wasn't happy with. However, it's used in the narration of a ten-year-old - a ten-year-old who is still learning. Although it's an offensive word, I think it's use is realistic for the person using it. Saying that, it should have been challenged. It would have been better if the word was said aloud rather than thought, then it could have been corrected. There is no correction, and it's not implied that this word is inappropriate or vile. And it's use is just so unnecessary; it's not necessary to use that word to describe an object that isn't behaving the way you would expect. And considering what Poppy goes through in the book, I just would have thought Frankel would be a little more sensitive to words that have been used as offensive slurs to other marginalised groups. I was just so disappointed and angry. This word is not ok, and it should have been picked up on somewhere in the editing process.
Otherwise, this is such a beautiful story. It's full of tough questions and it makes you think. Your heart goes out to everyone in this gorgeous, wonderful family who are trying to do their best by their lovely daughter and sister. Your heart will break more than once, but the love this family have for Poppy will mend it each and every time.
Thank you to Headline Review via NetGalley for the eProof.
Published: 9th February 2017
Publisher: Headline Review
Laurie Frankel's Website