by Joshua Loveday
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first began reading Laurie Frankel’s novel about a mother dealing with her son’s struggle with gender definition. As the proud father of a transdaughter myself, I looked forward to seeing my own struggles reflected in its pages, but while my daughter transitioned as an adult, the child in Frankel’s novel is prepubescent, and the book examines the controversial and timely topics that inevitably accompanying that story—from the stress it can put on a marriage to asking your children to keep secrets to the ethics of hormone suppressors.
THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS depicts a family of seven—physician mother Rosie, writer father Penn and their five children who are—to use the phrase currently deemed appropriate but which will probably change as society becomes more or less accepting of the varied definitions of gender—assigned male at birth. Their youngest—Claude—knows from the time they can speak that they want to be a girl, wearing one of their mother’s old dresses and refusing to take it off. Frankel’s depiction of the family’s realization that Claude’s behavior is not a phase is apt and realistic, partly due to her own acknowledgement of raising a transdaughter and partly due to her skill as an author who has honed her craft.
The four sections of the book are divided among three very different settings. Part I is set in Madison, Wisconsin, and details Rosie and Penn’s courtship, Claude’s conception and birth, and debuts the work of fiction Penn crafts as bedtime stories over the course of the novel. As Penn puts it: “This is a fairy tale, Rosie. A real one, not a Disney one.” Penn’s bedtime fairytale becomes a parallel story woven through the narrative that both foreshadows and explains Claude’s growth. When Claude insists on wearing a dress to school, Rosie insists that they can wear it at home, but not in public—or as Claude puts it: “Real clothes at home, school clothes at school.” Eventually, the school counselor diagnoses Claude with gender dysphoria.
When Rosie and Penn finally decide to allow Claude to wear a dress to school, the predictable mocking ensues, and not just from Claude’s schoolmates—the school district’s legal representative Ms. Revels insists that Claude must choose—at the age of five—whether they are a boy or a girl, or else the school cannot accommodate them, while Claude’s teacher Mrs. Appleton explains to Claude: “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.” Eventually, Claude chooses a new name—Poppy—the name of Rosie’s sister who died of cancer as a child. They have playdates with other children, until the father of one says, “Your kid’s a faggot,” and pulls a gun on Penn. After treating a transwoman in the ER for an assault that almost killed her, Rosie decides to move their family to Seattle.
Part II opens with Poppy defined as a girl at the family’s new Seattle home. She makes friends with other girls, wears dresses, has sleepovers, and lives a more-or-less “normal” life. Rosie gets a job with a private practice and a boss that repeatedly asks her to spend some time in Thailand doing humanitarian work because it would be good PR. As Poppy nears puberty, Rosie and Penn’s marriage becomes strained, with Rosie wondering if Poppy can change back to Claude and Penn advocating for Poppy to move forward as a girl. But like all secrets, especially one with a hormonal time limit, the secret is eventually exposed. After Poppy cuts off all her hair, claims she’s a boy because she has a penis and says she’s never going to school again, Rosie decides to take Poppy/Claude with her on a humanitarian mission to Thailand.
Set in Thailand, Part III is foreshadowed in the first chapter when Rosie’s sister Poppy lies in the hospital dying of cancer and watches the movie The King and I, explaining she wants to visit Siam when she gets out of the hospital, which she never does. Thailand exposes Poppy/Claude to a world they never thought existed—a society with three genders: “But the other thing Claude saw in Bangkok . . . were people—women—like him. Like Poppy. . . . They were everywhere, and everyone knew their secret, and no one seemed to care, which, Claude guessed, meant it wasn’t really a secret at all.” After spending the summer working in a rural, understaffed and ill-equipped medical facility—Rosie as a doctor, Poppy/Claude teaching English to other children—they visit the temple city of Chiang Mai, where Poppy/Claude encounters a selection of bathrooms with three doors: “One sign had a blue person in pants. And one sign had a red person . . . in a skirt. And one sign was half of each . , , For the first time in their [Poppy/Claude’s] whole, whole lives, there was a right door.”
Part IV opens with Penn’s fairytale, which is scheduled to be published as The Adventures of Grumwald and Princess Stephanie: “Grumwald stood in front of the mirror in Princess Stephanie’s clothes . . .” The witch in the fairy tale tells Grumwald: “Betwixt a prince and a night fairy is neither-nor as much as both-and. . . . Something new. Something more. Something better. . . . You share your secret, and you change the world.” Poppy returns to school in Seattle. Some of her classmates apologize, and a boy even asks her to dance. When her best friend asks her: “Are you a boy or a girl?” Poppy answers: “No.” Her friend responds: “What else is there?” Poppy says: “I’m all of the above . . . And I’m also more to come.”
Frankel’s novel is not so much a story about a very young boy who feels like they should have been born a girl, a much as it is a story about an entire family—and the multiple communities around them—acknowledging, internalizing and ultimately accepting (or not) Claude’s desire to not simply transition from male to female, but to recognize a nonbinary world full of all colors and shades of self-affirmation. I loved every page, every word, even if some of it did make me uncomfortable, but I’ve come to realize that comfort isn’t the point—in this story or in life. When my daughter first told me about her desire to transition, I wasn’t comfortable and worried about how it would all eventually turn out, but that’s okay. I don’t have to understand everything. All I need to do is accept her change with the same unconditional love I gave her as a child and enjoy this happy middle. As Penn tells Rosie: “Because you know what’s even better than happy endings? . . . Happy middles. . . . All the happy with none of the finality. All the happy with room enough to grow. What could be better than that?”