This Is The Way It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

A Book I Adore

This book as an extraordinary adventure chronicling the lengths to which parents will go to shelter and nurture their children in a society where individual identity is narrowly defined by physical characteristics. In a world that makes no allowance for genetic error or psychological preference, what defines gender or identity and at what age can we validate the native instincts of gender?

Laurie Frankel’s story of the dilemma faced by the Walsh-Adams family, is wonderfully entertaining and timely, featuring perfectly formed characters you cannot help relating to while admiring their tenacity and endurance.

Though the tale of two parents struggling with their young child’s sexual identity crisis, it does not purport to have all the answers nor does it preach a particular viewpoint other than parental devotion and a willingness to support one’s child at all costs. Frankel concocts a beautiful story that presents multiple challenges a family faces when they embrace their child’s difference and struggle to maintain her privacy. 

The husband, a writer exists in a utopic place ruled by magic and the power of words and yet he is a grounded stay-at-home dad trying to write the great American novel. 

The wife, Rosie, a doctor who works in an ER is steeped in science and practicalities, grounded by the bittersweet reality she faces at work each day, but is also a fierce example of maternal devotion. Between the two, the level at which parenting occurs falls somewhere in between exquisite and genius, fraught with sensitivity, intellect, creativity, patience, humor, guilt, illogical emotionalism, and is always drenched with love. 

Their conscientious parenting reflects not only their own oppositional natures but encompasses other avenues of thought and inquiry that arise from the problematic scenarios in which they find themselves. Poppy’s story is told in full brush-strokes, with rich color and poignant detail that grab the reader and don’t let go even after the story ends. 

Frankel has sculpted a most joyous family with flawed, entertaining members and her deft technique and gift for humorous dialogue renders them not only likable but hysterically funny. Together Penn and Rosie are pure romantic wit and add in their delightful and amusing children and you won’t be able to tear yourself away from this family. Each child has a unique and brilliant personality and their voices remain true throughout the book. You immediately grasp that these two parents not only love their children but like them. They want to spend time with them and are not hankering to be anywhere else despite the chaos and calamity that surrounds them. Consequently, the reader cannot bear to part with them either. You may find yourself wishing your own children were as brave, witty, and entertaining! Effervescent dialogue and believable circumstances will have you clutching your sides with laughter while Frankel’s luscious prose enchants with its evocative imagery, and the laser acuity of each word.

Unlike most novels, you do not find yourself annoyed over the obvious and silly choices characters make to incite plot. This is simply because Frankel’s creations act appropriately and make reasonable choices suited to middle class, well-educated, and loving parents, which makes their mistakes and missteps as unpredictable as they are necessary and inevitable. It is pure writing genius and this lack of contrivance makes you want to swoon with gratitude while addicting you to the adventures of the Walsh-Adams family. 

Though these parents may be more emotionally evolved than some, they still struggle within their own boundaries of acceptance, searching for a safe and painless way to raise their child in a cruel, exclusionary world. 

Penn, the father, is a writer and spinner of fairy tales, one that becomes both the narrative outline for the children’s existence as well as an expression of their own struggles and needs. His literary magic is transformative and exists not just as a counterpoint to the medical knowledge and concerns of his wife, but as a manifestation of Penn’s intuitive parenting skills, talent, dignity, and self-worth. Once it has served his children, it becomes his creative salvation and a testament to the tribulations the family has endured.  In this way, Frankel reinforces the tool of story-telling as a necessary component of child rearing and literacy. This device also lends each child the opportunity to see themselves as a character in their own life and a hero in a fairy tale that can be self-determinative. The role of the Walsh-Adams children in the foundational tale of Grumwald and Princess Stephanie evolves fluidly from starring roles, to character inspiration, to authorship.

When Penn turns his back on violence in a situation where most men would embrace it, Frankel reverses gender stereotyping by telling the story from both Rosie’s and Penn’s perspective. This effectively illustrates the bravery inherent in his decision and I defy anyone not to applaud Penn’s act of self-discipline. 

Whether it be sexual identity, the travails and guilt of working parents, the societal expectations that impact our family decisions, and the pain of childhood, Frankel never relies on conventional tropes. Rather, she creates unique but relevant, visceral situations while sprinkling her prose with intellectual humor and brilliant dialogue.

In placing a segment of her story in southeast Asia, she takes advantage of the only culture on earth that currently supports trans identity, the Ladyboys (Kathoey) of Thailand. This was a clever choice in so many ways as the transgender tragedies of the Hijra in India could not have offered Poppy the same gentle acceptance she encounters in remote Chiang Mai and other Asian cultures are even less accepting than American society. The plot incorporates this experience perfectly, in a way that erases any sense of contrivance and serves to provide Rosie with a metamorphic experience she has been resisting for valid reasons throughout.

The book is educational without being didactic and forces you to recognize the meaningful day-to-day experiences which challenge transgender children as well as the life-changing decisions they will have to make. Whether it’s a school bathroom choice or gender reassignment surgery, trans children’s lives are more complex and dangerous than their peers and the Walsh-Adams family confront this head on.

One conflict here is that at puberty Poppy should have made an identity decision to abet her preferred physical maturity most advantageously, but she is emotionally, experientially, and psychologically ill-equipped to make this decision. This may force her parents to create an adolescent limbo, buying their child time to learn and understand her own nature. In exploring the options available in today’s world from sleep-over underwear designed to hide a penis, to puberty postponing drugs, Frankel illuminates the expanded positives and their inherent negatives in creating a pathway for today’s transgender child. 

Frankel probes the concentric notions of privacy and secrecy, in this case both defenses that also entrap in a society where information is currency and where privacy can be construed as a concealment or betrayal. Our Instagrammed reality TV world demands life be an exhibition but this wars with a child’s right to confidentiality and sexualizes them inappropriately. This nexus of secrecy and lying ultimately imposes a burden on the other children in the family and that must be recognized and processed. Further, it exacts a social price from Poppy that she is ill-equipped to pay. From navigating schools, geography, and social acceptance the Walsh-Adams family carves their own trail through an unforgiving societal jungle few have tread before.

Written from dual parental perspectives, the reader experiences Poppy as a lovely child whose sexuality is irrelevant and whose sweet innocence is something both fragile and resilient thanks to her gifted parents. Frankel induces empathy so adroitly even those predisposed to reject or disprove will find themselves under Poppy’s spell and it will blanket any parent who loves their child in the fierce protectiveness that accompanies parenthood.

To create something as compelling as it is enchanting is a literary triumph, and this book is fun, socially imperative, informative, life changing, commercially successful, timely, and also beautifully written.

Brava. I can’t wait to read everything else she has written!