Love in All Its Forms

Famous writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps inspired by his own turbulent relationships, was once quoted, “There are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice.” Years after his passing, his words, and of course his works, were immortalized, some even adapted into the big screen. However, his quote about love was one that has left the biggest impression. Summarily put, it means that love and romantic relationships come in different shapes and forms and each relationship will never be the same as the other one.

Israeli-American book critic and essayist Ilana Masad puts on a modern twist to this age-old adage through her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers. Mother and daughter Iris and Maggie (short for Margaret) Krause has always had a turbulent relationship. Maggie, the oldest of two children, was headstrong like her mother and independent-minded like her father, Peter. The gap between the two would further be widened by Maggie’s coming out as queer during her teenage years. This alienation would also lead Maggie to seek refuge away from her home.

Things took an unfortunate change when Iris figured in an accident leading to her untimely demise. To pay her final respects to her mother, Maggie traveled back to California. After the wake, Maggie uncovers five letters written by Iris addressed to men she doesn’t know. In search for answers, and perhaps drawn by the mystery and intrigue, she resolved to personally deliver these letters. In her search for answers, she drove all over California and going as far as Nevada. What secrets do these letters hold?

“Grief, she realizes, is selfish. It’s about what she’s losing, not what her mother lost, not what her mother still had time or desire to do in her life—and surely there was a lot. Iris was young, as old people go.”

~ Ilana Masad, All My Mother’s Lovers

Maggie and her brother, Ariel, grew up believing that their parents have a blissful union, the perfect marriage. But as the old adage goes, truth is stranger than fiction. As each letter is delivered to the rightful recipient, a layer of truth is slowly unpeeled. Maggie was unprepared for the truth. The truth unsettled her, shocked her beyond disbelief. It flipper her world over. How does one find comfort in the truth when the truth was just a veneer and underneath it is a bed of lies?

The story alternates from the past to the present, from the daughter’s perspective to the mother’s perspective without muddling the flow of the narrative. This is a triumph of Masad’s writing. What piques the reader’s interest is the premise of the novel, which is quite interesting and even intriguing. It turns ordinary spectators and casual onlookers into gossip mongers. Or perhaps not. In a way, the title spoiled what the novel is about without giving much details as to its roots and causes. In immersing into the narrative, the readers uncover how this develops.

All My Mother’s Lovers is a multilayered narrative that deals with a bevy of subjects. Unwrapped, the first layer of this contemporary tale grapples with grief and how we cope with death. There are some of us, like Maggie, who puts an emotional distance between death and reality, who creates barriers and simply act like an onlooker. They would rather escape and run away as far as they can. There are also those who are stuck in the first level of grief – denial – just like Peter.

A contemporary story, Masad also underscored the role of social media. She highlighted the reliance we place on it and how it is affecting our lives, even in times of grief. It has become so ubiquitous that, at times, we get unnecessary pressure from it. Maggie, at one point, reflected: “Her selfie on Instagram from a few days ago has garnered more than two hundred likes. Because her mother is dead? Or because she looked good? Probably the former. Some of the latter. The combination of both is probably what it really is. Tragedy and sex appeal go together.”

“She wonders if she’s supposed to post something similar. If she’s supposed to reach out and tell the whole world that she has suffered a loss. But no, she thinks. It’s nobody’s business but her own.”

~ Ilana Masad, All My Mother’s Lovers

Masad kept her readers on the the edge of their seats by leaving many things unsaid. It is then up to the readers to uncover them. Beyond the tenterhook of uncovering the past where secrets lie, the novel grappled with seminal and relevant subjects like homophobia and homosexual/lesbian relationships. It can also be seen that the character of Maggie was built around Masad herself as they both share queer qualities. There were talks of sex, drugs, alcoholism but they rarely gave context to the story, except for the sex of course. Domestic violence was also tackled in the narrative.

The readers were drawn into the suspense and mystery that it was easy to forget about the underlying theme of the story – love in all its forms. There was filial love but homosexual and heterosexual love were the driving forces of the narrative. The various aspects of love were also explored in the story. When the readers meet Maggie, she was conflicted, unsure of her relationship status because of her past experiences. As the narrative moves forward, she slowly gains the assurance she wanted and she craved for. Love transformed her and taught her to trust herself and those around her.

But there were also different forms of love that were explored and it took the final pages of the story before this different truth was unveiled, blowing off the entire narrative and reshaping the readers’ expectations. It was in the concluding pages that the readers learn about two forms of love – asexuality and polyamory, two subjects that are rarely, if ever, explored in literature. The sheer concept of the two is enough to pique one’s curiosity. Asexuality refers to the absence of interest in sex. Polyamory, on the other hand, pertains to the practice of having an intimate relationship with more than one partner, with each partner giving his or her consent.

Love and grief, two seemingly unrelated subjects, pervade the narrative from the onset. Forming the backbone of the story, Masad laid the ground works to an interesting narrative. At times, however, it feels flat and ephemeral. It fell flat at the start and was literally a plateau until the last third of the story, when something resembling clarity started to emerge. This can be reduced to the story’s uneven pace.

“Allow yourself to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, if you can. Grief isn’t uniform. Everyone goes through it differently. I think people judge themselves for how they perform their grief, or don’t, and the thing is, it’s hard enough without adding guilt. If you’re angry, be angry. If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re giggling and euphoric for being alive, that’s okay too. And if you vacillate between those and a hundred other emotions? That’s okay. You’re allowed. And I’m here. And I love you.”

~ Ilana Masad, All My Mother’s Lovers

The story was sketchy at times. Maggie’s journey to deliver the letters dragged. There were parts of the story that were forced and felt unnatural, just like when Maggie decided to have her fortune be read by a fortuneteller or when she went on a night out with people she just met. Disaster was reverted by accentuating the story with Iris’ flashbacks. The conversations and dialogues didn’t flow; they felt contrived, or just totally off.

All My Mother’s Lovers is, on its own, powerfully evocative. Despite writing along the lines of a trite trope, Masad managed to usher in her own brand of writing. Indeed, love comes in different shapes and forms. It knows no boundaries and recognizes no limits. Masad captured that very well. Although the story didn’t always hold the readers’ interest, especially at the start, the conclusion redeemed it. It wasn’t a flawless story but Masad weaved rich details enough to warrant a second and hard look at the story.

Rating

70%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 
23%
Writing (25%) – 
15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Ilana Masad’s All My Mother’s Lovers was part of my 2020 Top 10 Books I Look Forward to List. Undoubtedly, I was looking forward to this book because the premise (and the title as well) intrigued me. Thankfully, my local bookstore had a copy of the book and once I got it, I immediately read it. I actually had a mix feeling about the book. Two-thirds of the book simply dragged and Maggie’s journey was uninteresting. It felt forced and lacked a natural flow. I guess because the reader was already given a hint on what those letters contain, thus, what seems to be a mystery is no longer one. Masad made up for this in the last stretch of the story when everything unfolded and a clarity was achieved. The conclusion changed my perspective of the story.

Book Specs

Author: Ilana Masad
Publisher: Dutton
Publishing Date: May 2020
Number of Pages: 315
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

After Maggie Krause’s mother dies suddenly in a car crash, Maggie finds five sealed envelopes alongside her mother’s will, each addressed to a mysterious man she’s never heard of. Maggie and her mother, Iris, weren’t close, especially since Maggie came out, but she never expected they’d run out of time to work through their differences. Now in her late twenties, Maggie is finally in something resembling a serious relationship, wondering if some of whatever shaped her parents’ decades-long love story might exist after all, and it’s especially hard to accept that her mother will never witness it.

Overwhelmed by her grief and frustrated with her family, Maggie decides to escape the shiva and hand-deliver her mother’s letters. The ensuing road trip takes her over miles of California highways; through strangers’ recollections of a second, hidden life, almost impossible to reconcile with the Iris that Maggie knew; and on a journey through her own fears as she navigates her new relationship. As she fills in the details of Iris’s story, Maggie must confront the possibility that almost everything she knew about her mother – her marriage, her lukewarm relationship to Judaism, her disapproval of her daughter’s queerness – is more meaningful than she ever allowed herself to imagine.

About the Author

Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-American fiction writer, essayist and book critic.

Masad grew up primarily in Israel. When she was in high school, she started writing poetry in Hebrew. She increased her writing input in preparation for college. She graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and she received her Masters in English from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. She is currently pursuing her doctorate from the same university. She is also serving as the assistant nonfiction editor for Prairie Schooner, an international literary quarterly being supporting by the university.

Her literary works were also featured and published in different magazines and publications such as The New Yorker, New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, NPR, StoryQuartlerly, Tin House’s Open Bar, 7×7, Catapult, and Buzzfeed. She is also the founder and the host of The Other Stories podcast. The podcast features fiction writers, from the new to the emerging to the established. In May 2020, her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers was published.