This was recommended to me by a friend after she picked it up because it was a Reese Witherspoon book club choice. It took me longer to get to it than I had intended…but isn’t that always the case? Haha. I have to say though, so far, Reese’s choices have been pretty damn solid. I thought Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows was fun and charming and culturally educational. Little Fires Everywhere was a realistic and entertaining suburban drama. The Night Tiger was an atmospheric and lyrical historical fiction/mystery. I’m sure I’ve read more, but those are the two I remember off the top of my head. The point is, I have yet to dislike one of her book club choices. And this one is not only no exception, but I think it is my favorite of her choices so far.
“You can’t tell people what to be […] You can only love and support who they already are.”
Penn and Rosie already have four boys when Rosie becomes pregnant with Claude. He’s the perfect addition to their brood of boys. Until he turns five and tells them he wants to grow up to be a girl. What follows is an emotional story of each family member trying to navigate the complicated waters of gender dysphoria. When they move, in order to give Claude a chance at a clean slate, to restart her life as Poppy, the entire family ends up keeping Poppy’s secret until the time is right. But, life never goes as planned, and when the secret comes out all on it’s own, the fallout is complex, scary, unexpected, and maybe even a little wonderful.
Before I get into my feelings about the story itself, which are strong and multi-faceted, let me just address the writing itself. Basically, it was spectacular. It was incredibly smooth and intelligent and the flow was gorgeous. Some of the most polished writing I have read in a long time.
Now, the story. Oh my goodness. This was a “pull at your heartstrings” type novel, in all the best ways. But it was spectacularly combined with exploration of a subject that is both very under-represented in literature and very disdained (to put it lightly/nicely) in real life. There were so many parts of this book that I loved. First, the entire look at being transgender/gender dysphoric, what that can mean/look like, how it affects an individual and their family, the decisions people make to keep the people they love safe, and how truly difficult parenting can be (even for those with all the time, money, privilege and inclination to do everything they can to support their children). The insight into the way being transgender can be so challenging, the various ways to navigate that, and really, how even that label (which is something that must be quantified and addressed, even to accepting parties, in order to make is understandable and relatable) is unnecessarily restrictive. If you are looking to learn more on the topic, especially in relation to how to handle parenting a transgender child, I do recommend this novel. It’s obviously fictional, but I feel like there are very few resources for this kind of parenting and, for anyone like the author, who just wants to be helpful/supportive as a parent, there are some fantastic perspectives explored and questions raised here. And though the author has said that this story in no way parallels her own journey thought parenting a transgender child, I am sure many of the emotions and challenges are based on her own experiences because there is a strong sense of authenticity behind many of Penn and Rosie’s concerns/questions/conversations. In any case, even if you are not a parent or don’t really want to learn more, but are perhaps uncomfortable with the idea of transgender (or gender dysphoric) people, I still (and probably even more so) recommend this read. It truly helps you see from a POV outside your own into a situation you may never (as I have not) have personal experience with, and no matter what your incoming empathy might be, there’s a good chance you finish this book feeling even more empathetic than before.
An additional thought: like I said, this is still a story of a unified, educated, socioeconomically well off, and supportive family. Penn as a fiction writer (imagination-minded) and Rosie as a medical doctor (scientific-minded), are perfectly poised to guide Poppy and their family through all the changes they face, and still they struggle and suffer. So, just take a moment to imagine every child/person/family without those resources and what leaping into this proverbial unknown might be like in that case. Just…think about that.
Anyways, as far as other things that I liked, the interactions of Poppy with her brothers, as well as their interactions with each other, and with other people regarding Poppy, are fantastic. I have two brothers myself, so well/realistically written sibling relationships are some of my favorites to read. Although these 5 are unique, of course, there were absolutely some recognizable moments and I just loved that entire aspect of the novel. I also really loved the social worker that Penn and Rosie use as their main source of support in helping Poppy navigate life, Mr. Tongo. He might be a bit of a caricature, with his incessant and unerring positivity, but I loved it. He was important for Rosie and Penn, and us as readers, helping to re-frame circumstances that could so easily lead to suffering and depression into something to be celebrated. His worldview really helps balance the rest of the ones we see throughout the novel and I appreciated his ability to flip the script on its head and embrace the unknown and the unknowable as full of potential instead of full of fear. Inspiring! In addition, Penn’s ongoing fairy tale about Grumwald and Princess Stephanie, that began when he pursued Rosie and grew/developed along with their family was a fantastic device. First, it was such a wonderful way to teach lessons to Poppy, as she grew up and had to make/face difficult choices, in a way that was understandable and palatable. Also, it was just such a sweet parallel for everything happening in Rosie and Penn and all their children’s lives, and, as it was woven throughout the entire novel, a great way to tie everything together.
There were also a couple things that were a little off, at least for me. For example, there were a number of chapters that ended with foreboding lines like “it was closer than anyone thought” in referencing Poppy’s secret coming out, that I felt were a bit heavy-handed. The plot development itself was more than enough to indicate to the reader that something was going to give, that a secret-spilling moment of reckoning was coming (because how could it not?). Also, I totally understood that this was a parent-heavy perspective novel (and the points they raise between themselves are great and thought-provoking for us as readers), and that Claude/Poppy was very young throughout the majority of it, but I just felt like there could have been a little more inclusion of her. There were many “what’s best for her” discussions/disagreements, but very rarely was Poppy included and that rang slightly false, or at the very least, concerning. I thought the inclusion of the “foreign perspective,” when Rosie and Claude/Poppy travel to Thailand, was a little too simplistic and coincidentally perfect. It was an important device, as far as pulling the characters (and us, as readers) out of the mindset and narrative that we are comfortable with here in America, and showing that there are so many other views of “normal” or “acceptable” or just, in general, alternative paths that are available to take. And I liked that cognitive dissonance that was forced on us. But it just seemed too convenient within the context of the story. And thinking of what other places they could have traveled to that would have been even more harmful, it was just…a bit too lucky. And last, the ending. I think perhaps it was too happy? Not within the family, I loved that. The way the older brothers all handle everything throughout, and in the end, is spot on. As well as, really, Rosie and Penn and how things go for them. Unfortunately, though, as far as all of Poppy’s friends, neighbors, etc. it just seemed too good to be true the way they all worked out. But maybe I’m wrong…in fact, I hope I’m just being overly cynical. It would be great if I were wrong.
Overall, this was a masterfully written and executed story of family, parenting (and how all kids are super different in their own ways, so how come some of those ways are more ok than others?), the challenges of change, and the power of secrets. And, in the end, the messages of acceptance, of owning who you are, and of taking things as they come, are just phenomenal. This is an important story, highlighting an under-represented voice, full of so many lovely morals. And you even get carried along through a magical fairy tale at the same time. It’s a single perspective to be sure, not a universal voice on a topic, but an essential one all the same. A great rec from a friend that I intend to pass on!
As I mentioned at the start, the writing was superb. Please enjoy a few of my favorite passages:
“You never know. You only guess. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decision 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 – 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.”
“Just because it’s made up, doesn’t mean it isn’t real […] Made up is the most powerful real there is.”
“Wider ranges of normal make the world a better place for everyone.”
“But if you made yourself up, you got to be exactly who you knew yourself to be.”
“Dispelling fear. Taming what was scary not by hiding it, not by blocking it or burying it, not by keeping it secret, but by reminding themselves, and everyone else, to choose love, choose openness, to think and be calm.”
“Story is the best magic there is.”
“You know what’s even better than happy endings? Happy middles.”