Laurie Frankel’s novel “This is How It Always Is” tells the story of a Wisconsin family whose life changes when the fifth boy decides that he is really a girl. Frankel discusses her book Jan. 24 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Seattle author Laurie Frankel succinctly summarizes the premise of her new novel in a note to advance readers: “ ‘This Is How It Always Is’ is about a family of five boys, the youngest of whom becomes a girl.” And that’s exactly what happens — but it’s not nearly so simple or so definite.
Brave, complicated, occasionally horrifying and frequently very funny, this story introduces a remarkable Wisconsin family. Rosie, a busy emergency-room physician, and her writer husband Penn initially are hoping their fifth baby will finally be a girl, whom they will name Poppy after Rosie’s sister (who died in childhood). When the baby turns out to be a Claude and not a Poppy, his parents and four older brothers happily welcome him. He is brilliant and precocious, and at the age of 3, Claude announces that he wants to be a little girl when he grows up. Then he begins wearing a dress, changing out of it only to go to preschool.
Game but worried, Rosie and Penn vow to do what they can to make Claude happy, but as Frankel observes, “happy is harder than it sounds.” In kindergarten, Claude wears dresses but uses the boys’ bathroom; he deals with jeers from older kids, and the strictures of a rules-obsessed teacher, before deciding to rename himself Poppy and live as a girl. Happier and popular, Poppy is thriving — until an innocent playdate goes bad when a bigoted, violent father whips out a gun and an array of insults.
Author will discuss her book “This is How It Always Is” in conversation with Nancy Pearl at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
After this, and another frightening incident in Rosie’s E.R. involving a transgender girl who is nearly beaten to death at a party, Rosie decides the family can’t stay in Madison. They move to progressive Seattle, where Poppy’s past as Claude is unknown, and nobody realizes she is a biological boy. Fully accepted as a girl, complete with a best girlfriend, Poppy is ecstatic. But how long can she remain as a boy passing as a girl? How long before her secret is out? And what will happen when she hits puberty and needs surgical and chemical intervention in order to look convincingly like a girl?
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Meanwhile, Poppy’s experiences (and the family’s uprooting to Seattle) take a toll on her siblings and parents: a new job, new schools, a loss of friends and activities. “You wrecked our lives for this place,” declares the oldest son, and he isn’t wrong. Yet when Poppy/Claude’s secret finally comes out, it is another dislocation — a temporary sojourn in Thailand (a requirement of Rosie’s new medical practice, and her youngest comes along) — that helps clarify a way forward for this remarkable family.
Frankel is a first-rate storyteller; her prose style is witty, thoughtful and warm, hampered only by an overreliance on foreshadowing and portents of doom as transitions. The deep feeling and insight of her writing is surely informed by personal experience. As Frankel observed in The New York Times (“From He to She in First Grade,” Sept. 16, 2016), she is the mother of a smart, funny, brave second-grader who used to be a little boy, and is now a little girl. The old adage, “Write what you know,” is compellingly true here.