Reviews: Secret Life, Secret War

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Road Trip Reveals Jewish Mother’s Secrets

By Sophie Panzer
“All My Mother’s Lovers”
Ilana Masad
Dutton

Although Ilana Masad’s novel “All My Mother’s Lovers” takes place in a pre-coronavirus world, it grapples with questions many of us face as we mourn the people and ways of life we have recently lost:


What role does Judaism play in processing shock, grief and anger? How can it connect us to people who seem distant and out of reach?

The Israeli-American writer’s debut begins when Maggie Krause’s mother, Iris, dies suddenly in a car crash. Twenty-something Maggie flies home to California and finds her father and brother completely overwhelmed.

Her own grief is complicated by preexisting pain; Iris reacted to her daughter coming out as gay with a combination of disapproval and denial, ignored her first girlfriends and held out hope she would “find the right man” some day.

As she scrambles to arrange a burial and a shiva, Maggie stumbles upon five letters in her mother’s desk, each addressed to a different man. Desperate to escape the crush of “socially acceptable grief” and learn more about the woman she felt never truly accepted her, she embarks on a road trip through California to personally deliver the notes.

One of Masad’s strengths as a writer is her ability to illustrate how trauma complicates her character’s relationship with Judaism. Maggie’s queerness, combined with Iris’ lack of support, alienates her from the heteronormative, family-centric version of religion she grew up with and drives her to seek community with secular queer friends and lovers.

Iris was the descendant of Holocaust victims and a survivor of an abusive first marriage to a rabbi named Shlomo. She struggled to associate Jewish observance with anything other than pain and forge a relationship with her culture independent of her violent ex-husband and her family’s tragic past.

However, Jewish rituals surrounding death and grieving bring mother and daughter closer together. The communal nature of sitting shiva, while painful, sets Maggie on a path to greater understanding of Iris’ life. She meets friends and family from her mother’s past and begins to realize that there was more to the woman who raised her than she ever imagined.

While Iris and Maggie’s relationships with Judaism are intriguing, their relationship with each other falls frustratingly flat by comparison. Flashbacks to Iris’ romantic relationships are vivid and detailed, and her lovers’ sense of loss is rendered acutely. However, there are no scenes that provide this level of detail about her relationship with her daughter.

The tension between the two women is mainly anecdotal and revealed in memories rather than flashbacks. “Iris always loved being in control, after all,” Maggie reminisces. This leaves readers wishing Masad would delve deeper into the complexities of their bond. As a result, Maggie’s grief seems vague and inconsistent more often than devastating.

Another disappointing aspect of “Lovers” is Masad’s language, which often descends into cringe-worthy cliché. Maggie catches a glimpse of “the ubiquitous golden arches of McDonald’s,” while driving. A semi-developed antagonist tells her, “You think I’m the big, bad corporate man,” and the word “corporate” gets thrown around as shorthand for “morally compromised” so many times it loses its meaning altogether.

Fortunately, Masad’s character development is much more original.

Maggie and Iris are both vibrant women who resist stereotypes. Maggie’s relationship issues with her girlfriend, Lucia, stem from a plain old fear of intimacy rather than HIV/AIDS, suicide, internalized homophobia or other tired lesbian tragedy tropes. Iris, in flashback, a woman hovering around age 60, rejects the notion that a healthy sex life is only for the young and has satisfying encounters with multiple men.

The novel’s depictions of women living complex, messy lives without the burden of sexual shame are incredibly refreshing and ultimately make “Lovers” worth a read. l

Interpreting Evil

By Jesse Bernstein
“The Interpreter”
A.J. Sidransky
Black Opal Books

Aug. 24, 2020, 11:34 a.m.: This review has been removed because it does not meet the Jewish Exponent’s editorial standards.

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