This Is How It Always Is is a novel about family, secrets, fairy tales, and gender. Rosie and Penn are busy parents—Rosie a doctor and Penn a writer—with five children, all boys. When it turns out their youngest wants to grow up to be a girl, Rosie and Penn do what they can to be supportive parents, but that turns out to involve making a big change for the entire family and keeping a secret that nobody sees lasting forever.
The book is focused particularly on being a parent of a transgender child, and particularly a set of parents trying to be as encouraging and accepting of all of their children as possible. The whole family is very important to the novel, as Frankel gives all of them—not only the parents and Poppy, the youngest—individual personalities and lives, which are all tangled together as families are. The narrative is split into separate parts, broadly different phases in the family’s life across five years, and the writing style is informal, meaning it is quite easy to read much of the book in one sitting.
Frankel says in the concluding Author’s Note that the book is not based on her own experiences with a trans daughter, but is a made up story that has sprinklings of her own life as well as imagination and research. Indeed, this idea of storytelling runs throughout the book, through Penn as a writer using stories to give morals to his children and through the stories that everyone tells to make situations seem less confusing.
It is a heartwarming and sad book that ultimately tries to give hope, using a happy ending and a running theme of fairy tales and telling stories to make sense of life. I’ve seen people claim the happiness is unrealistic and the parents “too” accepting, but that is why this book is an important one as well as an enjoyable read: if a trans child’s fictional happiness is seen as unrealistic, it shows the one, there’s maybe something wrong with reality, and two, then books are needed that show happiness and a future for trans people of all ages, and This Is How It Always Is is one of these books.