There may be no better way of handling a death in the family, at least in the American imagination, than hopping in the car and driving somewhere — anywhere. A road trip, especially to some meaningful destination, can be a gesture of respect for the mourned or a step towards renewal for the mourner. It’s a promise that grief, though it may transfigure, will not overtake.
Israeli-American author Ilana Masad’s debut novel, “All My Mother’s Lovers,” a tale of a daughter’s search for her late mother’s true self across the deserts of California and Nevada, lends that old trope some new significance. But ultimately, the neatly cathartic resolution Masad bestows on this journey makes her tale feel more like a wishful approximation of grief than a portrayal of the real, messy thing.
“All My Mother’s Lovers” begins where most coming-of-age novels leave off. At 27, Maggie Krause has finally emerged from her protracted, pot-smoking youth into a steadier, still pot-smoking young adulthood. When she’s not trucking away at a fulfilling (she swears) job selling insurance, she’s basking in the honeymoon phase of her relationship with Lucia, a physically and ideologically flawless artist-cum-activist. News of her mother’s death in in a car crash yanks her harshly out of that new life and transports her back to the uneasy scenes of her adolescence.
Maggie’s relationship with her mother Iris, a sleek events planner who never fully accepted her daughter’s sexuality, had always been contentious. It only grows more so posthumously, when Maggie discovers letters her mother left behind for five mysterious men. The recipients — an improbably diverse set of characters including an astrobiologist, a trans blackjack dealer and a former heroin addict — turn out to be Iris’s partners in a series of extramarital affairs. Infuriated and confused by the hidden life the letters reveal, Maggie leaves her laconic brother to care for their grief-stricken father, and sets out on her own to deliver the letters — and demand explanations.
Masad’s prose sometimes hampers the progress of Maggie’s trip. Her sentences dip into minutiae that neither propel the plot nor illuminate the characters’ real inner lives, and she compels Maggie and Iris, who alternately narrate the novel, to state rather than express their feelings. “She had absolutely no right to complain to her mother about her own privilege,” Maggie thinks in a moment of sympathy for her mother. “It was naive, and it was stupid. She supposes most teenagers are stupid in one way or another.” It’s a committed attempt at a stream-of-consciousness style, but it never quite captures what it’s actually like to be in a thinking person’s mind.
That shortcoming aside, the novel delves compellingly into the futility of any attempt to evaluate a beloved but flawed parent’s character. It’s all too easy for Maggie to condemn her mother’s infidelity, especially given Iris’s longstanding disapproval of her own sexuality. Her grief over the loss is only matched by her frustration that Iris isn’t there to absorb her righteous anger: “So you didn’t care that you were a home-wrecker?” Maggie asks each of the lovers, an accusation meant for her mother more than them.
But Masad makes it increasingly clear to the reader that the characteristics Maggie found most objectionable in her mother are those she shares. Both Iris and Maggie are extremely reserved, guarding their emotional privacy fiercely even as they resent that remoteness in each other. Iris, the child of Holocaust survivors, weathered an abusive first marriage as a young woman and built her career from sheer force of will, refusing to give it up after she married again and had children. It’s Iris’s refusal to sublimate herself in the roles of wife and mother that allowed Maggie to take for granted the privilege of carving out her own life, one that’s conventional in some ways and radical in others.
Yet Maggie is furious with Iris for not behaving the way a mother “should.” Even before she knew about Iris’s double life, she begrudged her mother the hours she spent at the office and on work trips: Iris “wasn’t being a perfect wife,” Maggie thinks at one point. “She was being selfish and greedy and grasping.” Although Maggie justly accuses Iris of being too traditional in her expectations — Iris has often said that Maggie’s sexuality will prevent her from having a satisfying or “normal” life — for much of the novel she herself holds the retrograde opinion that for a mother, the only options are selfless devotion or selfish independence.
As Maggie interrogates her mother’s lovers, she begins to suspect there might be other, less binary ways of evaluating Iris’s character. The lovers’ memories reveal a broadminded and thoughtful woman who doesn’t quite align with Maggie’s image of her mother, even as they assure her that she was absolutely central to her mother’s life. Through them, Maggie begins the process of understanding Iris as both a committed wife and a woman who felt most herself in hotel rooms with strange men, a mother who loved her children and was often deeply absent from them, a woman who supported her lovers’ queerness but not her daughter’s.
But instead of letting Maggie complete that reckoning, Masad sweeps in with a late-stage deus ex machina that absolves Iris from any marital guilt whatsoever. (I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say it seems too good to be true.) By the novel’s end, every grievance has been resolved, every perceived slight smoothed away. Maggie doesn’t have to reconcile herself to her mother’s flaws because, it turns out, they never actually existed.
It’s an ending that allows us to imagine a kind of perfect death, one which leaves nothing unsaid and children with little to puzzle over or forgive.
But especially these days, surrounded as we are by stories of those who die suddenly and alone, with almost everything left unsaid, that feels especially recognizable for what it is — a fantasy.
An Israeli-American author’s debut brings the road trip novel back to life
Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at email@example.com
‘All My Mother’s Lovers’ revives the road trip novel