I’m not sure what pulled me to this book. Perhaps the title? I think the idea of someone’s mother having lots of lovers was really fascinating to me, as generally once people become a mother, they sort of lose an individual personality and start to get characterized only in their relationship to someone else, their child. Regardless, I was pulling holds at the library when this one came across my desk and I was like, “oh yea, I wanted to read this.” But as I went to fill the hold officially, I realized that whoever had asked for it must have since cancelled the hold, because nothing popped up. So, there I was, sitting and holding this book that I was interested in reading and no one else wanted it first? I took it as a sign and checked it out to myself then and there. (Hopefully this isn’t a too common occurrence because otherwise it’s going to turn into a “wayyyyy too many books checked out” problem very quickly.)
When Maggie gets a call from her brother out of the blue one afternoon and hears that her mother has died suddenly and unexpectedly, she drops everything to travel home for the funeral. But the complicated relationship she had with her mother, and the overwhelming grief she still feels at her loss, is a bit too much for Maggie to process. So when she finds some letters that her mother’s will requests be sent out in the event of her death, Maggie decides to run out on her brother and father, leaving them to handle shiva alone, and deliver them in person. What she finds out on this mini finding-oneself road trip journey, about her mother, her parents’ relationship, her mother’s feelings towards her, and her own personal struggles with intimacy (in general and specifically with her current girlfriend, with whom things feel different, more intense) would definitely qualify as life-changing.
That description totally makes this book sound a bit like a hallmark movie or something. I don’t know a better way to describe it, because that is absolutely the plot, but in no way does it feel cheesy or overdone or scripted or fake. And though it is nowhere in the description, the blurbs about this book that call is a “queer tour de force” absolutely felt true for me. Maggie’s sexuality is clear from page one, but the considerable “more to it” that makes up the queer aspect of this book runs much deeper than that. However, I also feel like I can’t (shouldn’t?) go too much deeper into it in my own descriptions because I don’t want to ruin that part of the reading experience for anyone because they know too much. The fact that I had no idea how deep that vein would run, or in what way, or how seamlessly, is a large part of what made this such a successful read for me. So, I guess, take that baseline summary with a grain of salt and know there’s more, with some fantastic rep of relationships and sexualities that I don’t frequently see in contemporary literature. And I did appreciate her full “showing” of a concept that is often referenced in books, but mostly with “telling,” that “queer people have always been here.” It’s an important lesson for younger generations, queer and otherwise, and feels respectfully done.
What I can also say, or am going to whether I should or not, is that I loved the way Masad portrays how a person’s inner life is not necessarily what they show the outside world, sometimes not even their direct family (even though it felt a bit rushed, at the end). And the way that plays out in Maggie’s own relationship with her mother, their reactions to and assumptions about each other that we learn about as the plot unfolds, is particularly poignant in the authenticity of the complexity of their relationship. It is a brilliant portrayal of how complicated and nuanced parent-child and mother-daughter relationships can be, compounded by the disjointed and expressive layers of reaction that make up grief and grieving, and it rang incredibly true. Also, as sort of side note, there are many parts of Maggie’s life, existence, experience, friends, etc. that were very recognizable to me personally, which made her character that much more genuine (and genuinely frightening, at times, due to her prolific flaws…we all have them) to read.
I also want to comment quickly on the writing itself. Yes, the representation and concepts were really well communicated, but it was a bit more than that too. The words, phrases, sentences themselves were wonderful. Masad’s writing has a tangibility to it that pulls the reader along quickly, with clear strength. In addition, her concisely worded descriptions of large concepts shows an impressive command of language. For example, I really understood, but never would have been able to describe so succinctly, the concepts of how being back with family and childhood home brings out those aspects of who you were, even if you’ve grown past that or resent it being brought out OR how you can’t understand a person’s reaction to you because it doesn’t match with what their other experiences/reactions would suggest OR the specific fears that come with being completely vulnerable in a relationship when you’ve never done that before. The descriptions, internal monologue and external presentations for these concepts and more, were all really well done throughout the novel.
There were a few more things that I at least want to mention. First, the premise was really interesting and worked well the way it developed, but it also was a bit kitschy (it could have been worse and Masad handled it well, but the danger was there). There was also one plot point towards the end that really bugged me because I felt it was perhaps too over the top, too coincidental, within the story. I don’t want to give spoilers, but it’s a pivotal moment that breaks Maggie’s dad out of his own grieving space and it just felt too abrupt, maybe too easy. Also, some of the interactions with the letter’s recipients may feel unsatisfying to some readers. However, I liked how real they seemed. The spectrum of responses from recipients had a strong feeling of truth to them and I appreciated that within the story. And last, I think I could have done without the section from Maggie’s mom’s perspective. It’s not that they were bad. Honestly, her mother’s voice and thoughts and internal insight was actually quite well done. And, sure, they added a bit to the understanding the reader has of Maggie’s mom and their mother-daughter relationship. But there were more than enough other ways for the reader to see and understand that POV without handing it to us that easily (most of which were already included, so we wouldn’t have missed much, if anything, without those parts). Maybe if the book was more evenly split between those voices it would have been better? However, this is a situation of author’s prerogative, I suppose.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It was a compelling story of family, grief and how the people we know best can still hold depths and mysteries. Plus, as I said, I do think the queer aspects, and those moments where Maggie takes risks in being vulnerable, were powerful. If you’ve been thinking about trying this one, I’d say it’s definitely worth going for it.
A few pull-quotes, for your enjoyment:
“…a little elated, a little melancholy, that space of in-between that she felt was becoming more and more a part of her life as she aged.”
“She isn’t out of breath, but she feels she has to catch it. She isn’t dizzy, but she needs everything to stop spinning. She isn’t jet-lagged, has never been jet-lagged, but she feels like daylight savings has just happened and that she’s flown across the Atlantic to boot.”
“But what she’d thought then was confidence was just size – adults were simply, for the most part, bigger than she was at ten or eleven. But now that she’s a grown-up herself, she knows that there’s no innate dignity, only people more or less competent at playacting.”
“She looks back at the photos in her hands, these images of a woman for whom Maggie is years and years in the future. It’s an odd sensation, looking at them, the first images of her mother’s face she’s seen since her death – but it isn’t her mother’s face, at least not yet.”
“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.”