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Review: Love, sex, grief and family make 'All My Mother's Lovers' a melancholy debut


Review: Love, sex, grief and family make 'All My Mother's Lovers' a melancholy debut
Review: Love, sex, grief and family make 'All My Mother's Lovers' a melancholy debut

“All My Mother’s Lovers” (Dutton, 336 pp., ★★★½ out of four) starts and ends with steamy scenes, but debut novelist Ilana Masad has more than titillation on her mind when it comes to matters of love and devotion.

Masad, an Israeli American fiction writer who identifies as queer, introduces her main character, Maggie, as she interrupts lovemaking with girlfriend Lucia to take a call from her brother. Before you can say “Who does that?” we discover Ariel is calling with tragic news: Their mother, Iris, has been killed in a car accident.

Maggie’s father, Peter, goes emotionally catatonic upon Iris’ unexpected death. As the family prepares to sit shiva, Maggie bolts when she discovers that her mother has left letters to be delivered upon her death – not to her husband and children, but to five mystery men.

Sex and death, mothers and daughters – there's lots to explore here. Lucia’s devotion notwithstanding, Maggie is a less-than-lovable protagonist. Yet Masad’s skills as a writer keep the reader rooting for her even as Maggie, an insurance agent, self-medicates her loneliness and boredom with drink, pot and random flirtations. At 27, she can be petulant and petty, still locked in juvenile jousting with Ariel, torturing her college-age brother who clearly admires her and longs for a deeper connection. Traveling home to California after her mother’s death, Maggie alternately ignores and social media stalks Lucia, loath to make a commitment yet clearly smitten by a caring and giving partner.

Masad intersperses Maggie’s journey to track down her mother’s lovers with Iris’ story of the relationships. The parallels and paradoxes of the lives of two women who deeply loved yet disappointed each other ring both surprising and true. Iris leaves Maggie a treasured necklace with an amber pendant; she leaves Ariel her wedding rings. Maggie takes that as a slap from beyond the grave, yet another example of her mother’s disapproval of her sexual identity.

Review: Love, sex, grief and family make 'All My Mother's Lovers' a melancholy debut

But as she meet her mother’s lovers, Maggie is forced to the grown-up realization that the black-and-white judgments she made about her parents are better viewed in warmer, more forgiving shades of gray. Masad has written a melancholy and memorable reminder of how little we often know about the people who raise us, not just as caretakers, but as human beings with hopes and heartaches.


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