The recommendation to read Laurie Frankel’s This Is How It Always Is came with a caveat: don’t ready anything about the book, not even the description on the book jacket, just start reading it. So, this is precisely how I proceeded, and having since gone back and read all these previously banned descriptions, I’m glad I avoided them. I don’t think they gave too much away, but I think they framed the story in a way that I wouldn’t have wanted to accept going into it. This post will more than likely contain spoilers, so if you too want to go into the book with a completely clean slate, now is the time to jump off this post, read the book, and pop back in to see how you felt about the book and its imposed framework.
Disclaimers out of the way, I thought I’d share some general thoughts about the book before addressing its blind-to-me introduction. This Is How It Always Is is the story of Claude, who is born as an anatomical male, but who begins expressing a female identity at a young age. Claude loves wearing dresses and orchestrating teas with his doting grandmother. He likes to adorn his still short hair with barrettes. Willing to accept Claude’s wishes at home, his parents, Rosie and Penn, are more reluctant to allow the same self-expression in public, namely kindergarten. And so the battle begins to contain Claude’s femaleness to closed quarters. Rosie, an emergency room doctor, has a psychiatric colleague who counsels Rosie and Penn frequently throughout the book, gently guiding them to cease hiding Claude’s true identity. Unsure as to how to allow this to happen within the limits of their existing life in Wisconsin, a life which only knows Claude as Claude, Rosie and Penn decide to uproot the family to Seattle, deemed more transgender friendly, where they will allow Claude to become Poppy. Poppy’s birth, so to speak, is seamless for Claude who has already embraced a female identity, though contrary to their expectations, Seattle does not prove to be quite the open-minded, transgender haven that Rosie and Penn assumed it would be.
Poppy befriends her neighbor, Aggie, and the two quickly become inseparable, though not before Aggie’s parents confront Rosie and Penn with their desire for Aggie not to know that Poppy’s true gender identity. While Rosie and Penn are hesitant to accept this term of the girls’ friendship, they don’t push back either, and seem to be woefully ill-prepared for any inquiries into Poppy’s identity and/or history. So, the great family secret is born, and Rosie and Penn request that none of their other four children, all boys, tell anyone about Poppy either. Of course, this eventually backfires, and while there is one event that brings the truth to light, it turns out that no one has successfully kept Poppy/Claude completely in the closet. This catastrophic leak forces everyone to finally deal with Poppy’s/Claude’s reality, namely how Rosie and Penn will deal with having a transgender child. A lot of their energy is spent trying to assist Poppy/Claude to decide once and for all which gender he/she truly aligns with, and it is only in a work-sponsored trip to Thailand that another alternative presents itself. With a different cultural lens, Buddhism, Rosie and Claude/Poppy discover a culture that completely accepts transgender women as whole, unaltered individuals, i.e. no surgery, no hormones, simply an understanding of gender and physical being that is harmoniously male and female. Previously Rosie and Penn struggled with the idea of transitioning Poppy to a physical woman, debating the introduction of hormones and the possibility of reconstructive surgery, while Poppy herself seems unconcerned with her physical body as a barrier to her identity.
The book raises some interesting questions about gender identity, especially as it is imposed on young children. When Poppy is asked to select a future career for herself at an elementary school career day, she struggles between “girl” careers and “boy” careers. Scientists and athletes are “boy” careers, though I’m struggling to recall any suggested “girl” tracts. Someone also points out that women make less money then men, at which point Poppy frustratingly declares it’s “more expensive” to be a woman than a man. Rosie and Penn’s relationship does not conform to gender norms. Rosie is a successful doctor, and Penn a stay at home dad and aspiring writer. Penn does all cooking, cleaning, and daily childcare, yet there is a larger, external pressure for Poppy to choose a singular gender identity.
The one major sticking point for me, however, was the origin of Poppy’s name, which we know of from the beginning of the book. Rosie’s younger sister, Poppy, died as a child from cancer, and Rosie vowed to have a girl she could name Poppy, clearly as a surrogate for the sister she lost. This is the reason Rosie and Penn have so many children; Rosie is determined to finally have her girl. This seemed too odd of a juxtaposition on top of a book that is questioning gender identity. Why create a woman who desperately wants a girl and then is given this “half” girl instead? It seemed to serve no purpose in the book, expect, perhaps, to suggest that Claude/Poppy was destined to occupy this half space. I’m not sure I buy it as a plot element, however. It seems too confused, and ultimately irrelevant.
So, why am I glad I read nothing about the book before I dove in? The proposed framework of the book was centered heavily around the deep, dark family secret, and while keeping the secret was part of the book, it was more nuanced than that. I didn’t read all of Rosie and Penn’s actions regarding raising their transgender child as evasive, and ultimately I felt like they were forced into keeping the secret for longer than they would have on their own. I think this framework also removes Claude/Poppy from the center of the story, though perhaps my response is also more simple; I liked not knowing where the book was going and had no imposed thematic hierarchy. Maybe that’s nit-picky, and certainly I can choose to ignore descriptions and suggested summaries. I suppose I did just enjoy reading it with no filters.
*Photo credit: whitecat sg. I applied a photo filter.