This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel is a pick for my work book club. I had a lot of expectations going into this one, because I had heard so many good things about it. And…it delivered. Mostly.
Rosie and Penn Walsh-Adams, a husband and wife, and their five sons–Roo (Roosevelt), Ben, Rigel, Orion, and Claude are a family of seven living in a large farmhouse in Wisconsin. Rosie is an ER doctor who works the night shift so she can help with family duties during the day. Penn is a work-at-home father who is a writer. The book centers around Claude, the youngest of the family who, by age 5, is struggling with gender identity, requesting to wear dresses and barrettes to school, and saying he wants to be a girl. This Is How It Always Is follows the members of the family as they navigate Claude’s revelation and what it means to be a family.
This quickly could have become an “issues book” with a clear agenda. Which is not a bad thing, but could easily turn off some readers. But This Is How It Always Is isn’t a book with an agenda. This book is an exploration about how Claude’s journey impacts the family and how each member is affected by decisions that are made. This is also the story of a marriage and how sometimes, in life, couples have to accept and traverse difficult situations that do not have clear answers. I love the dynamic between Rosie and Penn. They both want what is best for their family, but have different ideas about what exactly that is. It was interesting to see how their differing approaches played out as the story progressed.
My favorite quote in the book really stuck with me, and is a testament to Frankel’s excellent and at times, poignant writing . As a parent, this quote hit me in the heart (and the gut). It comes from Penn, when he and Rosie are discussing Claude:
“You never know. You only guess. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don’t get to see the future. And if you screw up, if with your incomplete, contradictory information you make the wrong call, well, nothing less than your child’s future and happiness is at stake. It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there is no alternative.”
Oh my goodness, friends, doesn’t this just sum up parenthood? This is what I love about this novel. It doesn’t matter what your political and/or religious affiliation is on the issue of gender identity. You can read this book and see the hope, the struggles, the heartache, and the love that it takes to be a member of any family and to be in a marriage. Because as a member of a family, there are always decisions that have to be made that impact the lives of everyone involved.
For the most part, I really enjoyed the first three fourths of the novel. The last fourth of the novel felt contrived and unrealistic to me. I will not say specifically why, because, you know, spoilers, but I will say that as a mother, I cannot fathom Rosie’s knee-jerk choice toward the end of the novel. Also, for readers who love a page turner, this book is not that. This Is How It Always Is is not a plot-driven novel, but more of a character study. I did not find myself scrambling to read it, but I am glad I finished it.
Bottom Line: I give this a 4/5 for the superb writing style, and the deep dive into what it means to be a family.