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 — born Claude, the child renames herself Poppy as soon as she can — with dignity and warmth and generosity. In an age where trans bathroom panic leads some Republican men to “patrol” their local Targets with guns in order to allegedly keep their daughters safe from nonexistent sexual predators, Frankel patiently and calmly tells a story about a very specific experience.
Much the same way that 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 life-saving medical procedure, the endearingly recognizable family in Frankel’s book bear 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 spacy. 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 coverage of LGBTQ issues in the mainstream media, it might surprise you to hear me refer to Always’s tone as “gentle.” But gentle it is; Rosie and Penn almost immediately respect Poppy’s choice to identify as female, and the family gathers around their youngest with tolerance and 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 over the kids’ use of “ass” as a swear becomes less of a rejoinder and more of a punchline.
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 something 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, who is in real life the mother of a trans daughter, to do the work of a social novelist. If cisgender readers have ever had 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 bring up a question about the status and condition of the trans person’s genitals. Frankel addresses the genital question head-on: she explains 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 telling) friends of the family, the pressure and challenges for the other siblings.
In short, Always puts a face and a personality on a group of people that many readers might not personally have any experience with. The Walsh-Adamses are funny and 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 further toward the right of the political spectrum of you; it’s a novel of great empathy and compassion that transcends politics.
Always does have a few unfortunate failings. The last third of the book loses its forward momentum a bit, with a long trip to a distant land that feels forced for purposes of plot. 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 failures of location are more than matched, and surpassed, by Frankel’s gift for building characters. This is a family that you will take into your heart and — like all friends — you will welcome the changes that they bring to your life.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant