All My Mother’s Lovers Explores how Grief Transforms Us
Author: Blaire Baily
May 17, 2020
In the middle of the night, twenty-seven-year-old Maggie Krause receives the kind of phone call we all dread. Her mother has just died in a car crash, her brother says, and would she please come home? Refusing to fall apart, Maggie kisses her girlfriend, Lucia, goodbye and flies back to California. There, she finds her emotionally catatonic father and bitter younger brother unable to deal with the urgent practicalities of death. Forced to go through her mother’s effects, Maggie discovers five hand-written letters to five different men—ones Maggie has never heard of—and, running from her grief, decides to deliver the letters herself.
Author Ilana Masad brings Maggie’s situation to life in her compelling debut novel All My Mother’s Lovers. A young queer writer, Masad is better known for her short stories, personal essays, and incisive book reviews. In the novel, she explores how little we know those closest to us, how memories and narratives about the past are malleable, and how women, especially gay women, must learn to be vulnerable.
Maggie’s journey, as psychological as it is geographical, takes her across California and out to Las Vegas. The men she meets are, as the title suggests, the ex-lovers of Maggie’s mother, Iris. Between the sections focused on Maggie meeting each of the lovers, Masad intercuts chapters from the perspective of Iris at various moments in the past. Masad cleverly manipulates the gap between what Maggie misunderstands and what the reader, through Iris, learns. The past can be reshaped, Masad demonstrates, and our understanding of it changes through experience and discovery. Maggie’s perception of her own history is flawed, and she becomes increasingly aware that she is clinging to old narratives.
The truth—that Iris was having successive affairs—proves profoundly destabilizing for Maggie. What started as a way to honor her mother’s wishes becomes a painful exploration of Iris’s secret second life. How, Masad asks, can we be so close to each other and yet still so far away?
Maybe, Masad suggests, it is because we don’t know how to be vulnerable. Maggie’s not an easy person to get close to: she’s impulsive, rowdy, closed off, and sometimes deliberately shocking. She takes up space in a room. Maggie, like many lesbians, learns to live a little more aggressively as a form of self-defense. You’re warding off trouble before it ever starts. For Maggie, living that way makes getting close to people that much harder.
And learning about her mother’s infidelity complicates Maggie’s already messy experience of grief. Maggie and Iris often clashed. Iris did not fully accept Maggie’s lesbianism, which further undermined their relationship. Masad captures the competitive push and pull between love and rebellion that defines mother-daughter relationships. Sifting through her memories, Maggie also looks back with discomfort on her spoiled and naive behavior as a teenager.
But delivering the letters requires Maggie to do the kind of psychological excavation we ought to do with our loved ones while they are still alive, but never really get around to. And what could signal Maggie’s own transition to adulthood better than the realization that Iris was as emotionally alive, psychological complex, and three-dimensional as Maggie herself?
With warmth, empathy, and intelligence, Masad explores how grief transforms us. For Maggie, it is extremely isolating; a gulf opens up between her and everyone in her life. Yet, Maggie forges a connection with the men she meets, each of whom reveals a new side of Iris. Maggie even develops a weird kinship with several of the men, and it is with them, movingly, that she finally allows herself to feel her grief.
Like many first novels, the book has a few shortcomings. The novel often over-explains plot details and includes too much exposition. The ending, a reversal, is too neat to be fully satisfying. And Peter, Maggie’s father, lacks dimension because he has no flaws.
Despite these minor issues, the novel offers readers a nuanced, fully realized protagonist struggling to come to terms with death, her transition to adulthood, and the leap of faith required to let people in.
All My Mother’s Lover
By Ilana Masad Dutton
Hardcover, 9781524745974, 336 pp.