In “All My Mother’s Lovers,” a Mother’s Secret Letters Reveal Her Secret Life
Ilana Masad on the complexities of mother-daughter relationships and grieving a lost parent
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Not to sound like an assistant district attorney from SVU, but it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that acclaimed essayist and book critic Ilana Masad has carved a prominent space for herself in the realm of mother-daughter literature with her debut novel, All My Mother’s Lovers. It sits upon a throne of 2020 Most Anticipated lists and has charmed its way into the hearts and minds of readers and critics alike, marking it as one of this year’s most memorable debuts.
When her mother dies suddenly in a car crash, 27-year-old Maggie Krause returns home to find a devastated father and brother and, while going through her mother’s belongings, five sealed envelopes—each addressed to a mysterious man she’s never heard of. In an effort to learn the truth about her mother, Maggie opts out of shiva to hand-deliver the letters herself. What unfolds is the secret life her mother, Iris, kept from her family, forcing Maggie to reconcile herself with the mother she thought she knew, and didn’t know at all.
Told from the perspective of both Maggie and Iris, All My Mother’s Lovers is a poignant examination of intergenerational relationships, grief, and identity—all while trying to navigate selfhood through it all. It asks us to honor the relationships we have with the people we grew up around, and reminds us that our connection to them isn’t temporal, but a lasting imprint that never changes even when we do.
Greg Mania: This novel was born from a single line that kept you awake one night when you were in the first semester of your PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln: “Maggie is in the midst of a second lazy orgasm when her brother, Ariel, calls to tell her their mother has died.” What was it about that particular line, which is the first sentence of the book, that you just couldn’t shake?
Ilana Masad: I think most writers have come up with endless lines in the middle of the night when they couldn’t sleep, and those of us who, like me, can’t be bothered to get up and write them down nine times out of ten, usually lose those lines to the ether (and let’s be honest, most of them probably aren’t really as brilliant as we think they are in the wakeful exhaustion of the moment anyway). But for whatever reason, this one was still there in the morning, and I really have no idea why! Something I liked about it that night, and still enjoy, is the sonic quality of some of the words: “lazy orgasm” for instance, the “z” sound of both the zee and the soft ess. I guess I also like the existential neatness within it, this push and pull between sex and death.
GM: How has being a book critic helped you write this book?
IM: Indirectly, I can see it having helped this way: being a critic means keeping up with contemporary fiction, or trying to. I didn’t purposefully set out to write about the genre that I also tend to write fiction in most often (and yes, contemporary general/literary fiction is a genre), but it’s kind of what happened as time went on. In that way, reading, and reading closely, became part of my job, and I’m sure I internalized elements of structure, plot, and pacing that were successful as well as marketable in some way, even though I wasn’t doing so consciously. That is, when I read as a critic, I’m reading differently as I would as a fiction writer trying to learn from the form, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t learn things by some kind of osmosis, if that makes sense.
GM: Were there any specific challenges when shifting to the role of novelist? If so, how did you contend with them?
IM: This isn’t the first novel I’ve written, or even the first I’ve sent out (it’s the seventh of the former, fourth of the latter) but it’s the first I’ve sold, and so I really appreciate your framing of the question here, because it’s true that I’ve really never been in the role of the novelist before, certainly not in any public way like this. One of the biggest challenges has been being on this end of things—the A rather than the Q, the guest and not the host, the subject of the review rather than its byline. It’s surreal, after having spent years being on the other end, and (knock on wood!) having no plans to stop that anytime soon.
GM: Conversely, do you think your approach to book criticism will change now that you’re a novelist yourself?
IM: I really don’t think so! I first started publishing criticism in 2013, and fiction in 2012, and have kept writing and publishing those simultaneously ever since. It’s the ratio that’s changed, really, and that was largely due to the fact that over time, as I developed my skills in both areas, I learned that I potentially could make a career in criticism, while the fiction side of things was still much less clear to me. At this point, the only thing that feels different to me about books and culture criticism is their increasing unsteadiness as a career as well.
GM: The mother-daughter relationship is a bubbling cauldron in literature. Is there a text in this regard that had a profound impact on you and, if so, how?
IM: You know, I’m trying to think of whether there was one like this when I was younger and I can’t think of that many. So many of the books I read as a kid featured orphans or children whose parents were just sort of mysteriously absent from their everyday lives, and later, when I was trying to read all these classics that I thought everyone in the U.S. had read in high school, so many of the mothers were dead, and if not dead, then silly and sort of unimportant. It’s only in recent years that I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of books that dive deeply into this particular relationship, really, which makes me so glad.
The one book that I can think of as being formative when I was younger, and which also included nuanced and complex mother-daughter relationships is Little Women. I’ve read that book so many times, and each time I do, I find something new in those relationships. Marmee tries to respect her daughters’ decisions but also attempts to impart some of her own wisdom. She’s not perfect—sometimes she’s pushy, sometimes she’s holier-than-thou, occasionally she’s furious or exhausted. She’s human, in other words. And her daughters don’t always recognize her as a person who existed before they did, as a woman who is not solely a mother but also an individual with her own thoughts and desires and dreams; but sometimes, in glimpses and moments, they can and do, and that’s always felt so powerful and beautiful to me, and so rare for literature of the time, too.
GM: Iris is a character rich in dimension, and that is something Maggie discovers about her mom throughout the course of the book. What do you want your readers to take away about parents, specifically?
IM: I want readers to take away whatever it is they need to from the book—it’s not for me to say what that’ll be. (I know this sounds cheeky, but I mean it sincerely!)
In terms of how I think about parents: they fascinate me. This is probably partially because my own dad died when I was a teenager, and one of the things I started to mourn very early were all the things I’d never know about him, the conversations I’d never get to have with him, the stories that I’d never get to hear.
The older I get the more I think about how adulthood is this bizarre social construct that we all participate in, and how our parents must have felt just as confused and strange and out of control as so many of us do at various points in their lives, even as they presented whatever façade it is they presented to us when we were young. And that makes me think a lot about the distance between how children perceive their parents—which can be in a variety of ways, of course, from all-knowing and benevolent to dangerous and unpredictable and, most likely, somewhere in between—and how adults perceive their parents. The thing we have as adults is both our own life experience through which to read our parents and the capacity to learn more about them, to ask them things, to find out more. That doesn’t mean they’ll respond, or tell the truth; it doesn’t mean we’re required to ask or that all of us even want to. But that potential for communication is there, and I wonder how many of us don’t take advantage of it because of how deeply prescribed our hierarchical roles are.
GM: This is also a story of intergenerational relationships. How does identity, for you, unfold when presented in the context of different generations?
IM: What a wonderfully complex question! I think that the specifics depend very much on the identity, but more broadly speaking, I think a few key things change and evolve over time that create these seeming gaps between generations: social and political contexts (by which I mean things like what is normative or accepted on the one hand, and what laws and rights have been created under whatever political system one lives in) and, alongside that, language. So, to take Maggie’s identity as an example: she uses the words gay and lesbian to describe herself but identifies most often as queer, because that word describes not only her sexual orientation but also an identification with a kind of umbrella-term (that some object to) for the LGBTQ+ community, and also, in addition to that, a kind of way of being in the world that implies a political stance. On the other hand, women of Iris’s generation might identify much more strongly with the word lesbian because of the kind of stigma it carried when they were coming of age and coming out and the political implications of identifying with it.
When I think of the various intersecting identities we all carry, I like to think of the time periods where we came into or became aware of particular aspects of our identities as well, because I think that our terminology is often bound up with it in ways that are deeply emotional and difficult to shake.
GM: Grief is another major theme. You remind your reader that there is no one way to grieve, no wikiHow on how to deal with the frenetic emotions that run through you like slides on a projector. Did you learn something new about grief while writing this book?
IM: I learned how Maggie grieved, and how Peter grieved, and Ariel and Iris as well. All of them grieve in different ways in various moments in the book. Grief, unfortunately, has been in my life for very nearly as long as I can remember myself—it’s something I feel a strange kinship with. I have for some years now only experienced it second or third-hand, via the grief of those close to me, which scares me, a little, because for a good portion of my life, grief arrived like clockwork every four or five years. Part of me, I think, wrote this book with some bizarre and totally irrational superstitious idea that it would be a delay tactic, that by writing out all this grief I’d delay it entering my life directly again. I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, for probably obvious reasons.
GM: Has writing this book helped you reconcile with any grief in your life? Is so, how?
IM: I don’t think so, but only because I’m not sure I conceptualize grief that way—I don’t know if it’s something I can reconcile with. If anything, I think writing the book let me admit how much grief still lives in me and just how uncomfortable it still is, and probably will be for a long time.