“This Is How It Always Is” tells the story of a family upended when the last boy in the family decides he would rather be a girl.

Share story

“This is How It Always Is”

by Laurie Frankel

Flatiron Books, 336 pp., $25.99

Conformity. Perhaps in progressive Seattle more than in other parts of the country, we tend to utter the word with a whiff of disparagement. But many of us cling to certain norms more tightly than we might care to admit. And that’s what Seattle author Laurie Frankel sets out to explore in her third novel, “This Is How It Always Is.”

When we first meet the Walsh-Adams family, it is comprised of a stay-at-home dad (Penn); a mom (Rosie) who works as an ER doctor at the hospital; and four young sons. The boys are lively and precocious, which scarcely fazes their similarly idiosyncratic parents.

Even so, when it comes to raising children, some of the expectations of family and society seem to be as immutable as they are unspoken.

Rosie and Penn learn this in a most unexpected fashion when they get pregnant a fifth time. Rosie gives birth to another son. But at a very young age, Claude disrupts their expectations when he decides to identify as a girl. A domino effect ensues.

An aspiring novelist, Penn tries to manage the issues that arise by addressing them in a customized fairy tale serial that he tells the kids every night at bedtime.

Rosie, however, is a woman of science, and she is skeptical of Penn’s happily-ever-afters. Foreseeing a potentially rocky road ahead for her youngest, she pursues a pragmatic plan that involves medical consultations, therapy, fresh starts — and secrets.

Neither parent is completely wrong, and neither one is wholly right.

“This is how it always is,” Penn says at one point. “You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid… who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don’t get to see the future.”

And so they muddle their way through parenthood and work and life until the future finally arrives: puberty takes their household by storm — and then all bets are off. It seems that there is nowhere left to flee — not even the deepest, darkest jungle can offer refuge.

Or could it?

There is so very much to enjoy in this domestic drama: a carefully tooled narrative that is expansive, perceptive, and gracious; dialogue that is both witty and deep; characters who are remarkably self-actualized.

The construct is so beguiling it can annoy at times — would that we mere mortals could be so appealing as we haphazarded our way through life’s booby traps!

“This Is How It Always Is” feels like Frankel’s grown-up version of Penn’s customized fairy tale — indeed, it was inspired by her own learning curve as the mother of a transgender child. The “fairy godmother” could be the Mork-like social worker who bestows assurances with high-voltage beneficence. The “dark forest” might actually be the thicket of society — where dangers certainly lurk, but so do safe havens.

Ultimately, however, young Claude’s transformation into Poppy has nothing to do with the ingestion of magic beans or the waving of a wand or even the wringing of hands — it simply has to do with letting Poppy be.

In an age of increasingly divergent opinions about practically everything — policing tactics, immigration, public restrooms — how refreshing it is — how nonconforming — to encounter a book about finding a middle way.