A few months ago I joined Modern Mrs. Darcy‘s new online book club. It’s $10 a month and allows you to participate in discussions of the books chosen each month in an online forum or on the book club’s Facebook group, as well as take part in a scheduled live discussion for each month’s book, just like in a regular book club. I’m not paid to promote her Book Club or anything, I’m just trying it out and sharing my impressions with you.
For This Is How It Always Is, in addition to the regular discussion forum on the website, Modern Mrs Darcy was amazing enough to organize a live chat with author Laurie Frankel. I sadly had to miss it since I’m still very busy with my job change, but what’s so great about the online book club is that all webchat book discussions or other events like the one with Laurie Frankel are provided as recordings after that fact to members, so that you can still benefit even if you can’t make the event live. I tried to listen to the chat ahead of this review, but my internet wasn’t cooperating. I’m definitely adding it to my weekend to do list.
This Is How It Always Is would have been on my radar even without Modern Mrs Darcy‘s recommendation (I included it in my February 2017 Releases post), but I have to say that so far her recommendations have been excellent. She’s aced 2 out of 2 to date for me. Her March 2017 pick will be A Piece Of The World by Christina Baker Kline and I’m already looking forward to it. In the meantime, here is my review of the amazing, moving, thought-provoking This Is How It Always Is.
This Is How It Always Is
Published: January 4th 2017
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
This is how a family keeps a secret…and how that secret ends up keeping them. 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.
What I Liked
The way in which, despite the unfamiliarity of the topic to me, Frankel made it feel relatable. I don’t have a lot of experience or knowledge of transgender issues but sometimes I’ve thought about what it would be like to have a transgender child. I’ve told myself that if I did, I would do my absolute utmost to make sure they were able to accept themselves, be who they wanted to be and feel accepted by society as well. I feel like in This Is How It Always Is, Laurie Frankel’s exploration of a transgender child’s experience and also her family’s reaction, hits very close to what I imagine in my mind that I would do as a parent in Poppy’s parents’ (Rosie and Penn) shoes. There’s a rawness to the narrative. Frankel doesn’t tiptoe around Rosie and Penn’s discomfort or pretend that they immediately understand their child’s needs and respond perfectly to them. Rather they stumble along, as unsure of what lies ahead of them as I think many of us would feel as well if faced with this kind of significant event in our child’s life. I’m not a parent and yet Frankel made this very specific type of parental experience so real and poignant to me. I could feel Rosie’s fear for Poppy and Penn’s yearning to make an utterly complex situation simple.
“Rosie was gratified that Claude felt so supported at home. Rosie was horrified that Claude felt so precarious outside of it. But Rosie was also used to conflicting emotions, for she was a mother and knew every moment of every day that no one out in the world could ever love or value or nurture her children as well as she could and yet that it was necessary nonetheless to send them out into that world anyway.”
The writing. Frankel’s writing is not the traditional and flowery literary prose I tend to prefer – her style is more modern and at some points like stream of consciousness writing. I really appreciated its immediacy and the way in which the author brought the reader into her characters’ minds in the middle of their thought process. I can tell you that my though-process is nowhere near as incisive as Rosie’s, Penn’s or Poppy’s are at times throughout the novel, but the maxims on human experience the characters uncover as they are rolling thoughts and ideas around in their own minds or having late night discussions with each other feel organic and sincere. I think it’s this style of writing that is purposefully imperfect (run-on at times and then right after choppy, to mimic actual dialogue or a realistically convoluted thought pattern), that makes Frankel’s characters feel so realistic and human.
“Not ever. Not once. You never know. You only guess. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trust you to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don’t get to see the future. And if you screw up, if with your incomplete, contradictory information you make the wrong call, well, nothing less than your child’s entire future and happiness is at stake. It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there’s no alternative.”
The main character. Poppy is only 3 when she begins to discover that she may not be Claude after all. I was emotional at several different points throughout the novel, and they always coincided with my sadness, frustration or worry for Poppy that mirrored her parents’ concerns for her as well. While Poppy is shown as vulnerable, young and in need of protection, Frankel also portrays her as wise beyond her years, thoughtful and incredibly strong at times. This duality to Poppy’s character is explored by Frankel as she is in between deciding whether to be 100% Poppy, 100% Claude or someone else. Rather than representing male or female, Claude and Poppy come to embody two different types of people, the first who hides and conforms at the expense of his happiness, and the second who is authentic to who she is and flourishes as a result. I really felt that this switch from thinking of Claude and Poppy in terms of their gender to thinking of them in terms of their differing emotions and outlooks was such a poignant way on Frankel’s part of reframing the issue. It’s not about girl or boy, male or female. It’s about happy or unhappy, authentic or inauthentic, being yourself or being forced to be someone else.
“I miss Poppy not because I miss my happy, strong, laughing little girl but because I miss my happy, strong, laughing child. Claude is a lost, sad child out of joint… It’s not that Poppy’s the girl and Claude’s the boy. There’s boy and girl in both of them. They both have what they parade and what they hide. It’s that Poppy’s the happy child, and Claude is the sad one. Poppy’s the one who fits and feels comfortable, and Claude is the one who chafes in ill-shaped holes.”
What I Didn’t Like
The fairytale interludes. I appreciated how the author had Penn, the father of the family, make up fairytales at night for his children that intertwined with the actual experiences they were facing in their lives. I understood the role that these fairytales played as plot devices and to subvert traditional narratives of the expected roles of princes and princesses inherent in most children’s upbringings. However, I felt like at times the fairytale portions of the novel ran long and also felt slightly trite or cheesy, so among a novel that was filled with memorable, moving passages, they were definitely my least favorite part.
This novel will break your heart only to put it back together again the right way around. It will inform you through the eyes of an imaginary transgender 3 year-old who you will want to protect as if she were your own. It will make you epically sad and then make you want to go out and be exactly who you’ve always felt you are, whatever that means.
About The Author
Laurie writes novels (reads novels, teaches other people to write novels, raises a small person who reads and would like someday to write novels) in Seattle, Washington where she lives on a nearly vertical hill from which she can watch three different bridges while she’s staring out her windows between words. She’s originally from Maryland and makes good soup.
Other Popular Novels By Paulette Jiles
The Atlas Of Love (2010)
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
When Jill becomes both pregnant and single at the end of one spring semester, she and her two closest friends plunge into an experiment in tri-parenting, tri-schooling, and trihabitating as grad students in Seattle. Naturally, everything goes wrong, but in ways no one sees coming. Janey Duncan narrates the adventure of this modern family with hilarity and wisdom and shows how three lives are forever changed by (un)cooperative parenting, literature, and a tiny baby named Atlas who upends and uplifts their entire world. In this sparkling and wise debut novel, Frankel’s unforgettable heroines prove that home is simply where the love is.
Goodbye For Now (2012)
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Sam Elling works for an internet dating company, but he still can’t get a date. So he creates an algorithm that will match you with your soul mate. Sam meets the love of his life, a coworker named Meredith.When Meredith’s grandmother, Livvie, dies suddenly, Sam uses his ample free time to create a computer program that will allow Meredith to have one last conversation with her grandmother. Mining from all her correspondence—email, Facebook, Skype, texts—Sam constructs a computer simulation of Livvie who can respond to email or video chat just as if she were still alive. It’s not supernatural, it’s computer science. Meredith loves it, and the couple begins to wonder if this is something that could help more people through their grief. And thus, the company RePose is born. The business takes off, but for every person who just wants to say good-bye, there is someone who can’t let go.
Have you read This Is How It Always Is or any of Laurie Frankel’s other books? What did you think of them? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read other recent reviews on the blog including for feminist memoir How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran, historical fiction novels The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and News Of The World by Paulette Jiles and travel memoir Under The Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes.
Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository.