Editor’s note: Ilana Masad reviews books for the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Cover courtesy of Dutton

It might happen over years or in a singular moment, but somehow, by God, you’re forced to realize that your parents are people, too. Flesh and blood, with richly lived experiences; not extras in the story of your life, or one-dimensional foils who materialized the day you were born. To Maggie Krause, the 27-year-old protagonist of Ilana Masad’s debut novel, “All My Mother’s Lovers,” mom Iris exists in her mind as the composite of a few infuriating adjectives: absent – often traveling for her job as a corporate event planner; unaccepting – of Maggie’s homosexuality; unenlightened – and worse, willfully so.

When Iris dies in a car crash, Maggie flies home to reckon with a prickly college-age brother, a deflated father nearly catatonic in his grief – with whom Iris always appeared to have a sitcomishly perfect relationship – and the task of interacting with a string of sympathetic strangers, which she finds more than a little annoying. Discovering, alongside Iris’s will, a stack of letters to be mailed in the event of her death gives Maggie an out: She’ll hit the road and hand-deliver them, while also investigating her mom’s mysterious connections to the male addressees, none of whom she’s ever heard of.

They’re Iris’s lovers, of course – a revelation that sends Maggie into a petulant tailspin, as she gets high and drunk with strangers and rants her disapproval at more than one of Iris’s paramours. “And, what, you were just OK with her cheating on her husband?” she screams at one, before calling him a homewrecker. The truth of Iris’s life upends Maggie’s already-tenuous regard for her mom. What she’d thought were work trips were often dalliances; what she’d thought was a perfect marriage wasn’t (certainly not by sitcom standards). But it also brings her clarity – perhaps the one welcome side effect of heart-rending loss – about the relationship back home that she’s forever anxious of sabotaging; and about the mother she never quite saw: a woman more evolved, less judgmental, and more resilient – just like her indefatigable daughter – than Maggie ever gave her credit for.

“Lovers” can feel thin at times, though it’s a testament to Masad’s writing that I wanted more from the world she created: more depth to Iris’s letters, which read more like camp-pen-pal correspondence than confessions from the grave; and more dimension to Maggie’s dad, Peter, who spends most of the novel out of sorts, only to drop a bombshell at the end that feels pat and underexplored.

Yet Masad is deft and incisive about the sometimes-fraught nature of mother-daughter relationships, around which loaded subtext can seem to twist and twine like Christmas lights. And she affectingly plumbs the mind-bending hugeness that is losing a parent: Oh, how formidable mothers, she suggests, tend to loom even larger in death. “It dawns on Maggie that whatever else her mother was … Iris was strong, and her strength felt like a kind of protection between Maggie and the world, even long after moving out and having her own life. She won’t ever have that again. She’s a woman without a mother, she thinks, and somehow, the world is a little less safe now.”

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