Thank you all so much for your sweet comments and emails after my post about Blaise. It means so much!
I started writing this Julia Reads and realized that no one would make it through a post so long, so I’m splitting it into two.
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
This is another book from Modern Mrs. Darcy. I was excited about it because Anne recommended it so highly, but it just didn’t do it for me. The Walsh-Adams family has 5 sons. The youngest, Claude, is transgender and in kindergarten, begins wearing dresses, grows out his hair, and becomes Poppy. The novel is really about how the family deals with the situation, their cross-country move in an effort to keep Poppy’s secret, and how family dynamics play out. Based on how people raved about this book, I was really looking forward to a thoughtful look at this situation, but I didn’t get it.
Rosie and Penn have discussions several times about how Poppy isn’t “really” a boy. It’s tossed off causally like, “Well, of course she’s not really a boy.” And the author treats it as obvious, but doesn’t really offer any treatment of what makes someone really a boy or really a girl. She’s clear on what doesn’t make someone really a boy or girl (biology), just not on what does. Except her moving-right-along tone indicates that she has addressed it, which drove me a little insane.
The family moves from Wisconsin to Seattle, for Poppy’s sake, figuring that a more progressive environment will be safer for her. Plus, no one there knows she’s male- she be just like any little first grade girl. This piece of the plot was totally unbelievable to me. In the age of the internet and social media, there just isn’t any such thing as starting over with no baggage or background. Poppy has four older, teenage brothers. The idea that the family could just uproot themselves and no one would know anything is too far fetched for me.
At one point, Rosie takes Poppy with her on a medical mission to Thailand, and the trite factor went through the roof in this section of the book. Because, obviously, in east Asia, the land of enlightenment and tolerance, transgendered people are just everywhere and it’s totally cool. All the enlightened Thai people understand that your body doesn’t really matter, it’s just “who you are” that matters. (Relationship between body and “you” of course, is never explored.) And of course, Poppy becomes a “Buddhist for life.”
I was disappointed that Frankel took so many easy outs, and didn’t really dive into the big questions she raises (and yet, the book treated it as though she had).
All that said, there were a few things about this book that I thought were beautifully executed. The relationship between Rosie and Penn was so well written, and so endearing. A few of their conversations were wonderful.
“No,” Penn agreed, “but I’m not sure easy is what I want for the kids anyway…I mean, if we could have everything, sure…I wish them easy, successful, fun-filled lives, crowned with good friends, attentive lovers, heaps of money, intellectual stimulation, and good views out the window. I wish them eternal beauty, international travel, and smart things to watch on TV. But if I can’t have everything, if I only get a few, I’m not sure easy makes my wish list…Easy is nice, but it’s not as good as getting to be who you are or stand up for what you believe in…I wonder how often it leads to fulfilling work or partnership or being…Not much of what I value in our lives is easy. But there’s not much of it I’d trade for easy either…”
“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 entire future and happiness is at stake. It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there’s no alternative.”
You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon
I don’t love short stories, but I decided to give this a try after hearing it recommended on the Modern Mrs. Darcy podcast. It’s a collection of short stories set on Fort Hood, a Texas Army base. I really liked the stories and the way the characters overlapped and the stories interconnected. Military life is both fascinating and completely foreign to me. I just can’t get past the way short stories always end just as you’re getting invested in the characters and their own story, though. Fallon is a gifted writer, and I’m looking forward to her novel, The Confusion of Languages, which just arrived in the mail.
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
I’m indifferent to this one. I was left with that I-don’t-think-I-get-it feeling. Struggling, divorced salesman is desperate to close a deal that will allow him to pay his daughter’s tuition, catch up on his mortgage, and pay off the friends who have loaned him money. However, he and his team never even stand a chance at winning a contract in the far flung Saudi Arabian desert “city” where they’re working. I think it’s supposed to be a metaphor for the condition of the American (and global) economy following the recession, but it didn’t do anything for me. The husband and I just watched the movie on Amazon and I actually enjoyed the movie a bit more. Tom Hanks made Alan, the protagonist, more sympathetic and relatable, and the ending was more satisfying.
The Darlings by Cristina Alger
This was an easy, entertaining read. It’s the story of a prominent New York family as they begin to fall apart during the financial collapse of 2008. It’s not lighthearted or happy but it’s an enjoyable read, especially if you love New York.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
I would love to teach this novel to middle schoolers. Abilene is a wonderful protagonist- vulnerable, flawed, but fundamentally good. She is trying to figure out who is, and where she comes from, and who her family is. The other characters are well-drawn and this book hits the sweet spot for me of being both character and plot driven. I’d highly recommend it for mature 4th & 5th graders, as well as middle schoolers.
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
I know this book is old news, but this is the first time I’ve gotten around to reading it. Griet is a servant in the household of famed Dutch painter, Vermeer. Her role in the family’s life becomes more complex as her master has her sitting for and assisting him in his work, and she must conceal this from her jealous mistress. Chevalier’s language is beautiful and, if this makes sense, evokes the same feeling as one of Vermeer’s paintings. I loved her description of Delft and the way she showed the class distinctions, and the way that one’s inherited station in life dominated one’s choices and experiences.
What are you reading? Have you read This Is How It Always Is? What did you think?
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