I had no idea what to expect from this book. My cousin, who has been an educator for two decades and is a parent of two kids, not only recommended it but said it was one of the best books he had read in years. I usually like his recommendations so I went for it. I’m glad I did – even though the book didn’t get off to a good start for me. The first note I have (which is on page 11) is hating the conversation two characters are having about how being an only child is horrible. I do not appreciate that. I’m an only child, my cousin is an only child, and my son is an only child. I am not trying to hear anything negative about only children. I even texted my cousin asking him what kind of bullshit he had gotten me into and he assured me that the book wasn’t about only children. So I continued reading.
As the narrative gets going, the parents of the story – Penn and Rosie – are introduced before they become parents and before they become husband and wife. They are charming in a fun way and clever and relatable. My kind of protagonists. We then learn that Penn and Rosie have five (holy shit!) children (all sons) and early on the youngest identifies as a girl. Once that revelation takes place, it’s clear that Penn and Rosie are extremely understanding and supportive parents and that they are raising understanding and supportive children. But we also see how people in their lives are not as kind and accepting. We see how horrible and judgmental and ignorant people can be – including teachers – and how it turns the family’s life upside down.
Thankfully the majority of people in their circle are compassionate, but author Laurie Frankel (who has a transgender kid) ensures that the story (although fiction) is told in a realistic fashion. She depicts how tough parenting can be through anecdotes like “bedtime was a study in chaos theory,” careful character development, and flawless dialogue. There were several instances when, as I was reading, I felt like I was in the same room with the characters. As a fellow writer, I know exactly how hard that is to pull off.
In terms of content, details like how “accidentally crushing a LEGO jungle dinosaur castle” would mean “paying dearly the next morning” and the notion that “bedtime could only be followed by TV or drinking” made me laugh because Wookie and I know exactly what both of those scenarios are like! I also laughed when Rosie talks about “excruciating rainy Sundays when the kids are whiny, bored, and beastly, and it takes a hundred hours to get from breakfast to bedtime.” Oh we’ve felt that pain before! And, all joking aside, this one from Penn sums it all up: “As parents, we make a thousand decisions a year with life-altering impact whose implications our kids couldn’t possibly get their heads around. That’s our job. That’s what parenting is.” When I read that I thought to myself, that’s why parenting is equally exciting, scary, and exhausting. And why I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Through her characters, Frankel tackles tough questions such as: “How do you teach your small human that it’s what’s inside that counts when the truth was everyone was pretty preoccupied with what you put on over the outside too?” She also tackles tough ideas such as: “Happy is harder than it sounds.” That being said, while her writing is prolific and the subject matter is important, I don’t think this book is for everyone. On the cover there are four quotes praising the book and I agree with all except one: “This is a novel everyone should read.” Maybe every parent and/or teacher, but not everyone because it won’t have the same impact for those who have never dealt with seemingly never-ending days, incessant whining, or getting up multiple times a night when a kid is sick. Or how having a front row seat to watching a little human grow up is the greatest privilege of my life.
One small critique regarding the actual narrative is that there are times when it is overly descriptive. I know coming from a writer that might sound crazy but it’s true. Sometimes too descriptive becomes too much – less is more after all – and there are some places in the novel where that could have been dialed back a bit. Also, while the ongoing fairy tale Penn makes up for his children is endearing and creative, and comes full circle to wrap up the book, there are too many details about what happens in that story that take away from the main story.
So was my cousin right? Is this the best book I’ve read in years? It is an excellent portrayal of the ups and downs of parenting, making tough decisions, juggling work and home life, bravery, and belonging. Every protagonist is brave in some way and there is a lot to be said about that. Frankel accurately depicts how an entire family supports one another and it’s not always perfect or pretty – but it is honest. The narrative also reiterates that parents learn as much from their children as their children learn from them, which is especially true in this scenario because no parent ever wants their child to feel pain or feel like they don’t belong.
“What was the same always outweighed what rotated and rostered and changed.”
“That’s what all stories want. They want to get out, get told, get heard.”
“The normal state of children is nothing resembling normal. Which makes it hard to identify the aberrations when they come.”
“asinine with an emphasis on the ass”
“You don’t have to like everyone. Find who’s fun and smart and safe and stick with them.”
“a flight longer than long division”
“What was the difference between forest and jungle?…Mostly the difference was this: fairytales were set in forests, never jungles.”
“Over time, stories change; they shift; they become something new but with elements of the original and elements of what’s to come.”
“If you told your own story, you got to pick your ending.”
“No matter the issue, parenting always involves this balance between what you know, what you guess, what you fear, and what you imagine.”
“The novelist in me is inspired by how much raising children is like writing books: You don’t know where they’re going until they get there.”