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Raising a family in the 21st century

“This Is How It Always Is” by Laurie Frankel

In an era that seems to be blowing up with fake news and alternative facts, I’d like to redirect our focus this week to the value of real fiction – an ages-old tradition that has helped individuals contemplate points of view and circumstances that can be very different from our own.

Consider, for example, the LGBTQ community. From the legalization of gay marriage to public bathroom access for transgender individuals, issues concerning people with minority sexual orientations have evolved significantly over the past decade. We’ve all been witness to the societal shift toward tolerance, although in many cases it hasn’t happened without significant pushback.

But those who are not part of the LGBTQ community may not understand what happens beyond the headlines – the profound personal impacts – emotional, physical and legal – that this progress, along with the attitudinal fits and starts that accompany it, have had on individuals.

In her new novel, “This Is How It Always Is,” Seattle author Laurie Frankel welcomes us into the home of the Walsh-Adams family, and gives us a closer look at what it is like to be part of a sexual minority.

Rosie and Penn are the monogamous, heterosexual parents of five lively boys. But an unanticipated complication arises when their youngest, preschool-age Claude, makes it clear that he wants to be a girl when he grows up. At first his parents think this may just be a phase, but after a while they realize he’s serious. He doesn’t want to take off the fairy princess costume, he likes to carry a purse, and he prefers to be called Poppy.

Rosie and Penn are open-minded parents, and their No. 1 concern is what will make their children happy.

“But happy,” as Frankel notes, “is harder than it sounds.”

When some members of their Midwestern community indicate resistance, or even revulsion, to the idea of a transgender youth in their midst, the Walsh-Adams family decides to pursue a fresh start in a more progressive town (Seattle). They tell their kids bedtime stories about alternative lifestyles with satisfying outcomes, they attend counseling sessions, and they accommodate Poppy’s gender preference in every way possible. Except one.

They keep her transgender status a secret.

This works until adolescence comes along and it all blows up in their faces.

Sometimes “This Is How It Always Is” tries too hard. Penn and Rosie’s kids are astonishingly self-possessed, and the didactic fairy tale sequences seem belabored.

But Claude’s transformation into Poppy is so matter-of-fact, so heart-breaking, so endearing and so brave that perhaps those readers who profess not to understand how these gender “mix-ups” could possibly happen will find some enlightenment.

Frankel knows whereof she writes; her own child is transgender. She demonstrates with authenticity and utter conviction that these stories need to be told, and that transgender people need to be seen, heard and understood.

“This Is How It Always Is” is a start.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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