This is How it Always Isis the account of the Walsh-Adams family, whose youngest son Claude knew from a young age – young, as in three years old – that he identified, to some degree, as a girl.
Though it’s a fictional account, Frankel was inspired by her own journey with her son/daughter, and at times it comes across like an idealised account of how she would have liked to have handled the situation. Nonetheless, the story in engaging and thought-provoking, detailing the Walsh-Adams journey as they do their best to accommodate Claude/Poppy’s identity, which includes moving from the midwest (and all the conservatism that implies) to Philadelphia, which Frankel describes as being so far beyond tolerant that straight couples feel like an endangered species. Naturally, not even the most ‘beyond tolerant’ of cities will make Claude/Poppy’s childhood and adolescence trauma-free (even allowing for the usual traumas you would expect of a pre-pubescent child) and their lives are fraught with secrets and a tightrope of decisions that seem like the best of a bad bunch at the time but have the potential to go catastrophically wrong at any given moment.
There’s a segue into Thailand and its ladyboy culture (which comes across as a lot less shoehorned than how I just wrote it) which offers some great insights into how a country viewed by many in the West as backwards could be so more tolerant, perhaps in a large part because of its Buddhist influences. And there’s a fairytale that author dad Penn has been making up on the fly for over a decade that ties it all up together in a way that made me feel all warm and gooey inside.
This Is How it Always Is is, for all it’s examples of bigotry, quite a heart-warming story about a child who doesn’t fit into a binary definition of gender and their loving, supportive family. Though mum Rosie, an ER Doctor, frequently reflects on the hate crimes she has seen committed against transgender people, and her fear for such crimes being commited against her child were heartbreakingly believable, I never felt that Claude/Poppy was in danger. Nonetheless, it is an insightful novel about the arbitrary nature of what is considered ‘acceptable’ when it comes to things like gender and identity, and one I would wholeheartedly recommend.