THE DEATH OF a parent can bring forward a world of unanswered questions, especially those regrettably never asked. When that parent dies before the child understands their mother or father to be an independent, complex human being, separate from themselves, the answers revealed after death can turn the person they are grieving into someone they only recognize in part. Such is one of the most vital questions brought forth in Ilana Masad’s debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers: Who are the people that made us, and how do they shape who we become?
All My Mother’s Lovers opens with both a death and a little death. Maggie Krause is mid-orgasm when her brother calls to say that their mother, Iris, has died in a car crash. It is a reality that jolts Maggie right out of the life she has crafted for herself as a late-20s, queer woman, living in St. Louis and forging a path separate from the family that raised her. Within hours she is back home in suburban California in her childhood home, corralling her brother, Ariel, and their catatonically devastated father into making all the necessary arrangements for mourning their loss.
The novel is at once a mystery, a coming-of-age and road story, written with enough urgency and intrigue to call it a page-turner. As Maggie wrestles with her grief, she also struggles with anger toward her mother’s “discomfort” with her being gay and the unresolved complexity that discomfort yields.
Where the novel kicks into gear is when Maggie finds, with her mother’s will, a collection of five sealed letters written by Iris with a request they “be sent out in the case of her untimely death.” Each of the letters is addressed to a different man who Maggie does not know. This mystery, her sadness, and her lasting anger all come together to cause Maggie to forgo sticking around for her mother’s shiva. Instead, she hits the road to hand-deliver these mysterious letters and learn more about her mother in the process. “Socially acceptable grief,” as Maggie says, “is fucked up.”
Masad’s novel oscillates back and forth between Maggie’s and Iris’s perspectives, jumping through five decades of Iris’s life and the 10 or so days in Maggie’s after Iris’s death. From Iris’s vantage point, we see her as a young woman married to an abusive rabbi, as a happy new mother with her second husband, and Maggie’s father, Peter. We also see her with the various “lovers” that the book’s title hints at, the men Maggie didn’t know existed until she saw their names scrawled across envelopes in her mother’s handwriting.
In Maggie’s narrative, we are right alongside her as she begins to discover the woman her mother really was, rather than the woman Maggie thought she was. Maggie’s own sense of self waffles in the process. We learn early on that Maggie is not one for long-term relationships. Her girlfriend Lucia is the one in bed with her when she learns her mother is dead. “Maggie doesn’t know what to say, because she doesn’t know what Lucia can do. Her mother has never died before. She’s never before had a girlfriend for this long, this many months in a row. She doesn’t know what having a person help her in this intimate way should look like.”
Maggie assumes this rejection of closeness is a byproduct of “seeing such a good example in her parent’s marriage” which perhaps was “detrimental, made her standards too high, her expectations over the top.” That said, after she finds the letters, Maggie realizes perhaps she knew far less about her parents’ relationship than she thought. “Iris knew nothing about her,” Maggie says about her mother at one point, but it seems to be a two-way street.
The novel’s setup and accompanying journey are both absorbing, but they yield somewhat superficial discoveries about Iris. We meet the lovers of the title, but don’t ever understand many of the choices Iris makes while in their company. The book never quite reconciles the Iris we understand within the familial unit of the Krause home with the woman Maggie learns about in talking to these men. Iris remains as much a mystery to the reader as she does to Maggie.
Indeed, the entire family is secretive. They seem not to share histories, or whereabouts, or even thoughts. The secret-keeping is not specific to Maggie and Iris, but is instead a multigenerational pall beginning with a barely there Holocaust story line that is revealed as a secret too. One gets the urge to have this family sit down together and spill their guts.
The novel also straddles a puzzling line between the socially progressive and the literary cliché. Maggie is a member of the “LGBTQIA2S+” community with an awareness of the privilege of being a “native English speaker with a flat accent,” and a name “signaling whiteness” — all of which casts an exciting, fresh, contemporary character, who still unfortunately falls into clichés of plot. With a character so woke, it feels oddly surprising when the plot falls into formulaic pits, most notably exemplified in a trip to an omniscient psychic who could easily exist on the Disney Channel. There is also the unfortunate nature of the novel’s big reveal, which feels far too easy and clean an answer for the complexity of the pages and the characters that come before.
There are many things for which All My Mother’s Lovers should be praised, not least of which is its cast of dynamic, complicated queer characters whose relationship problems have nothing to do with how they identify. There is also Iris’s sexual desire, which is written about repeatedly and explicitly. It is not often that a 63-year-old, postmenopausal woman takes up so much page space, sexually speaking. There is even a sex scene that takes place in a nursing home, which brings octogenarian sex lives on to the page as well. Extending the full scope of human experience to older characters, to queer characters, still feels revolutionary in 2020, and Masad is diligent about sharing those stories and those voices with dignity and care.
All My Mother’s Lovers is engaging, and confident, and often wry, but it unfortunately does not satisfyingly resolve the mysteries we readers want solved. Perhaps, though, that lack of answers is a resolution in and of itself. Most of us are raised sheltered from the complexities of who our parents really are, believing them to be all knowing and ever wise. It takes becoming a flawed and messy adult to realize that all they really are is older than us.