A third of the way through Ilana Masad’s All My Mother’s Lovers, Maggie Krause, our protagonist, prepares to leave her father and younger brother holding shiva while she sets out to deliver, in person, a handful of letters left by her mother, who unexpectedly died in a car accident: “As the garage door opens in front of her, revealing shadowy six o’clock light, she has the uncanny feeling of being inside a movie again. Lone girl in search of the truth, she thinks, or child looking for her mother’s secret life. Grieving woman out for revenge, maybe. Of course, she realizes, this may all be moot.” Masad grants Maggie this kind of meta-awareness throughout the novel, which allows her to veer into or steer away from traditional narrative patterns.
Despite Maggie’s attention to these cinematic tropes, Masad still sets her up to have such assumptions regularly proven wrong, much to the debut’s strength and enjoyment. Through Maggie’s thought processes, Masad successfully subverts readers’ expectations of her novel’s classic premise too. Yes, All My Mother’s Lovers has an air of mystery to it, there are textbook elements of road trip and discovery narratives; but, it is ultimately a story about self-acceptance, one with some fresh and much-needed updates to boot. Masad—who is an excellent book critic—recognizes the predictable and formulaic movements of literary archetypes and manages to complicate many of them during Maggie’s journey while still holding onto engaging forward movement, and the pacing particularly picks up once Maggie hits the road.
To backtrack, All My Mother’s Lovers begins with Maggie receiving news, via a phone call from her younger brother, Ariel, that her mother, Iris, has died. At the time of the call, Maggie is being eaten out by her relatively recent girlfriend, Lucia. With this news broken, they quickly get Maggie packed and headed on a flight from St. Louis to Southern California, where she grew up. There, Maggie finds her father, Peter, helpless in mourning, so she takes on the responsibility of identifying the body and making arrangements. With help from Iris’s old synagogue, a ceremony comes together and Maggie serves as a pallbearer. When reviewing Iris’s will, Maggie finds five letters addressed to men she’s never met and makes the impromptu decision to learn more about the recipients.
This sequence leading up to Maggie’s departure is, perhaps, drawn out a stretch too long; but, it is filled with deft scaffolding and subtle clues to the novel’s ultimate trajectory. Interwoven among the straightforward sections of present action, Maggie’s journey is at times put on pause for chronologically scattered backstory told from Iris’s perspective, snippets of a secret life kept from her children. More of Iris’s history is revealed to Maggie directly as she hunts down the truth, filling in the gaps between what Maggie learns and Iris omitted.
These vignettes from the distant past also help to accomplish what is arguably Masad’s largest triumph: superb and cohesive character development. The novel is nearly free of “extras” and bit characters; each person Maggie knows or encounters is fully rounded and given an identity full of complexity. This is particularly important considering Masad presents an inclusive and intersectional cast across race, class, age, gender identity, and sexual orientation. The novel’s plot presents many opportunities for flat and convenient character work, but, here again, the author navigates around easy traps and pitfalls.
The novel’s most notable issue, on the other hand (and forgive the cliche), is that Masad has held onto a few extra darlings. The occasional overwritten or superfluous explanation demonstrate this tendency: “The food was delicious, piping hot, and best eaten when fresh,” or “he turns back to them and puts two fingers to his mouth, fluttering his tongue in between in the universal symbol for eating pussy,” for example. Relatedly, Maggie’s routine and the lingering focus on social media doesn’t add much other than contemporary texture. In these moments, the psychic distance seems to break down between author and character, which can slow the pacing and distract from the narrative’s present action. In whole, Masad’s window dressing elegantly covers much but, at times, slight overdeveloped can still be seen.
The well-versed reader in the genres Maggie imagines her search for answers taking will likely anticipate the general direction of the novel’s conclusion, but the endpoint is nonetheless inventive and rewarding, because Masad never allows her characters to be either strictly good or bad, honest or deceitful, compartmentalized or united. With this novel, Masad joins an all-star lineup of 2020 debuts. All My Mother’s Lovers explores the distance we feel between ourselves and others, even those we love most, and how the gap in those perspectives can be an entry point for grief, empathy, and forgiveness.
All My Mother’s Lovers
By Ilana Masad
Published May 26, 2020
Aram Mrjoian is a writer, editor, instructor, and PhD candidate at Florida State University. He is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, the Southern Review of Books, and the Southeast Review, as well as the managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, The Rumpus, Boulevard, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast online, Longreads, Joyland, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com