On the Remarkably Gentle Social Change of ‘This Is How It Always Is’

Seattle author Laurie Frankel’s novel of raising a trans child is a portrait of a happy family like any other.

Novels are terrific engines of social change. No form of art is as effective at putting you inside the minds of other people. To read a novel, you must be willing and welcoming to someone else’s perspectives. Being a receptive reader is a state of grace that you never experience in, say, politics. It’s a place of possibility, an opportunity to create change in yourself. Harriet Beecher Stowe understood this, and Charles Dickens, and Harper Lee.

And so does Seattle writer Laurie Frankel. In her latest novel, This Is How It Always Is, Frankel portrays a family with a trans daughter with dignity, warmth, and generosity. Born Claude, the child renames herself Poppy as soon as she can. In an age where trans bathroom panic leads some Republican men to “patrol” their local Targets with guns in order to supposedly keep their daughters safe from nonexistent sexual predators, Frankel patiently and calmly tells a story about a very specific experience.

Much as President Trump’s paranoid rantings about scary refugees are defused with a few photographs of an adorable Syrian baby entering the country to receive a lifesaving medical procedure, the endearingly recognizable family in Frankel’s book bears no resemblance to the perverted world that transphobic agitators try to depict. The Walsh-Adams family very likely looks like yours, if maybe—with five children—a little bigger. Rosie, the mother, is willful and a little bit spacey. The father, Penn, stays at home, watches the kids, and writes. After four boys, they try one more time for a girl. Eventually they succeed.

Given the fraught tenor of mainstream-media coverage of LGBTQ issues, it might surprise you to hear me refer to Always’ tone as “gentle.” But it is: Rosie and Penn almost immediately respect Poppy’s choice to identify as female, and the family gathers around their youngest with tolerance, compassion, and love. This is a happy family—the kind (thanks in part to a famous line by one Mr. Tolstoy) you almost never read about in novels. They have their in-jokes—parental scolding of the kids’ use of “ass” as a swear becomes less a rejoinder and more a punch line.

Of course, novels don’t really work without conflict of one sort or another. The world, in Always, is not so respecting of Poppy. Kids are cruel, and one scene beautifully delivers the menace of violence without crossing over into anything too scary or melodramatic. But Frankel clearly loves her characters, and is rooting for them to succeed. That gives the book a charm that makes it very hard to put down.

The book’s warmth also allows Frankel, herself the mother of a trans daughter, to do the work of a social novelist. To cisgender readers with questions about the experience of being trans, Always will likely provide an answer. Pretty much any trans person will tell you that even the most well-meaning cis people, when they finally feel comfortable enough to, will always ask about the status and condition of the trans person’s genitals. Frankel addresses this question head-on, explaining what it’s like for Poppy, and also carefully lays out the options for other young trans women. And she walks the reader through all the other experiences, too: what it’s like to seek support for Poppy from the school district; the ethics of telling (or not) friends of the family; the pressure on and challenges for the other siblings.

In short, Always puts a face and a personality on a group of people whom many readers might have no personal experience with. The Walsh-Adamses are funny, likable, and smart, the kind of neighbors you wish you had on your block. This is a book you could easily give as a gift to someone to the right of you on the political spectrum; it’s a novel of great empathy and compassion that transcends politics.

Always does have a few unfortunate failings. Its last third loses momentum a bit, with a long trip to a distant land that feels forced for plot purposes. And though the book is in large part set in Seattle, Frankel doesn’t really sketch out the locations with any vividness or veracity. But these omissions are more than matched, and surpassed, by Frankel’s gift for building characters. This is a family you will take into your heart and—as with all friends—welcome the changes they bring to your life.

Paul Constant is the co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage like this at seattlereviewofbooks.com.