All My Mother's Lovers
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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 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?
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 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. 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. 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.”