Off the Shelf: Children and parents by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Tales of intergenerational conflict fuel novels and memoirs. The majority of these works focus on bad parenting and/or the inability to accept a child’s differences. Both are true of two recent works: Ilana Masad’s novel “All My Mother’s Lovers” (Dutton) and David Adjmi’s memoir “Lot Six” (Harper). Each author discusses these conflicts, although only one also offers the parent’s point of view. 

In “All My Mother’s Lovers,” Maggie Krause finds it hard to believe that her mother, Iris, just died in a car crash. Their never easy relationship became more difficult when Maggie came out as a lesbian, something her mother seemed unable to accept. Returning home, Maggie finds her father, Peter, in shock and almost unable to function, and her younger brother, Ariel, at a loss for what should be done. Since Iris was Jewish, the family decides to hold a week of shiva after the funeral. It’s during that time that Maggie begins to learn her mother’s secrets, including the fact that she had been married once before. Finding some letters her mother requested be sent after her death to men Maggie has never heard of, she decides to leave the shiva and deliver the letters in person. What she discovers during her trip is that her parents’ perfect love story might be very different than she thought. This forces Maggie to not only review her parents’ marriage, but her own life and relationships. 

When Maggie speaks to the people who are to receive the letters, the novel turns back in time so readers see events from Iris’ point of view. This adds great depth of character and feeling to “All My Mother’s Lovers.” Also revealed is the story of Iris’ parents and how their history affected her life. By the end of the novel, Maggie finally sees her parents as people, people who have also lived messy, complicated and loving lives. 

While Masad writes in her dedication in “All My Mother’s Lovers” that her mother is nothing like Iris, Adjmi makes it clear in “Lot Six” that his parents’ dysfunctional lives greatly affected the trajectory of his own. His family is part of the extended Syrian Jewish American community, although the less successful part. Adjmi is far younger than his three siblings and grows up during the time that his parents’ marriage is crumbling. Even though the family is not observant, he’s forced to attend a religious school, where he feels out of place and becomes alienated from Judaism The biggest problem he faces, though, is that by the time he is 9 years old, he knows he is attracted to boys.

However, in his community, that option was scorned and denigrated. Adjmi does find some freedom when he realizes that his parents’ way of viewing the world is not the only one. Unfortunately, by that point, he is so alienated from himself that he has no idea who he really is, and tries on and discards identities like they are fashionable clothes that can easily be tossed aside. What Adjmi does cling to is the theater: the one place able to transform his nightmares into dreams. He becomes a successful playwright, although the road to success is not easy.

While Adjmi does talk a bit about his parents’ lives, he never truly explores why they came to be so hurtful and harmful. His lack of interest in doing so is understandable: the mess his parents left in their wake made his life difficult and stunted him emotionally, and that’s without considering the fact that he is gay. Even his siblings acknowledged that, after they moved out, the atmosphere of the house was terrible for him, although there wasn’t much they could do since their own lives were adversely affected by their parents’ behavior and unreasonable demands. But the messes their lives became also separated them from Adjmi and left him feeling unable to relate to almost any member of his family. Although this might make “Lot Six” sound like unpleasant reading, it’s not. Adjmi writes well and the prose moves at a brisk pace. Although at times readers might be excused for thinking “this guy is a mess,” they will also be rooting for him to become a success.