Luster: A Novel by Raven Leilani
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
Genre: Literary fiction, women’s fiction
Content Warning: discussion of suicide, language, mild violence
Luster: A Novel (2020) is the debut novel by American writer Raven Leilani. The highly anticipated book became an instant New York Times Bestseller, Los Angeles Times Bestseller and National Indie Bestseller. The novel is narrated by Edie, a Black 23-year-old painter, who works as a managing editorial coordinator for children’s books. The novel follows Edie’s affair with Eric, a white 46-year-old married library archivist in an open marriage. Edie’s relationship with Eric takes a surprising turn when his wife Rebecca asks Edie to move into their home in the suburbs, where they live with their 12-year-old adopted Black daughter, Akila. Luster is set in modern-day New York City, where Edie struggles with problems many millennials can relate to: hanging on to a dead-end low paying job that she dislikes, struggling to make her monthly student loan payments and living in an unhealthy housing situation: “my roommate and I have been supporting a family of mice for six months”. But her love life is where Edie experiences the most frustration: “I have not had much success with men. This is not a statement of self-pity. This is just a statement of facts”. However, Edie is not looking for love, instead she sleeps with nearly every man in her office because men are “an answer to a biological imperative, whom I chew and swallow”. The exception are men, like Eric, who are authority figures.
The novel starts with Edie corresponding with Eric over email while at work: “the first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light”. But in spite of the risks that IT may view her internet activity remotely, prompting another disciplinary meeting with HR, Edie is thrilled by the prospect of this new relationship: “I want no friction between his fantasy and the person I actually am […] I want the sex to be familiar and tepid, for him to be unable to get it up, for me to be too open about my IBS […] and when we fight in private, I want him to maybe accidentally punch me.” When they first meet in real life, a nervous Edie gives Eric a limp handshake and is unable to look him in the eyes, signaling an “unsurprising and immediate surrender of power”. Eric uses his power over Edie to withhold sex, call her names and exploit Edie’s masochistic tendencies, during an argument he tells her, “I’d like to hit you”, a request that Edie eagerly obliges.
After one week of Eric not responding to her calls, texts or emails, Edie decides to go to his house and finding the door unlocked, she enters. While snooping around the house, she meets Eric’s wife Rebecca, with “her chunky, tragic sneakers and freaky competence”. Rebecca then invites Edie to their fourteenth wedding anniversary celebration that is taking place later the same day. At the anniversary party, Edie learns that Eric’s adopted daughter, Akila, is Black and Eric explains: “We adopted her two years ago. She’s really struggling and I don’t know what to do”. Soon after, Edie is fired from her job after a complaint is filed against her with HR, likely by one of her spurned office lovers, and she quickly finds herself homeless and doing meal/grocery deliveries to make ends meet. One morning, Edie ends up delivering a bone saw to Rebecca, who is a medical examiner, and Rebecca tells Edie that Akila doesn’t have any friends. Rebecca then invites Edie to live with the family, presumably because Rebecca believes that Edie, a Black woman, should be able to get through to Akila. The remainder of the novel focuses on the relationship that develops between Edie and Rebecca and Edie and Akila.
I read Luster based on an Amazon recommendation and I am happy I did because there are a number of things I liked about the novel and Edie in particular. I liked that Edie does not follow the tropes typically used for Black women in fiction, you know what I mean, Black women are usually of three the types: 1) the “strong Black woman” who is a repository for everyone else’s problems, all while ignoring/downplaying her own; 2) “the heroine who triumphs over/is defeated by oppression” and; 3) the successful Black woman who has it all but is still unhappy, likely because she can’t find love. Refreshingly, Edie fits none of these categories, as Zadie Smith says in her review of Luster in Harper’s Bazaar: “What a brave thing […] to create Edie, a young Black women frequently in doubt, embarrassed, and unsure, who is passionate and perverse, kind and vengeful, depressed and exhilarated – in other words, human”.
In another first for me, an avid reader of Black/African/Afro-Caribbean fiction, Edie wants Eric, a white man, to debase and abuse her: “[I] tell him actually, I’d like it if he pushed me again.” In an interview with Tomi Obara, Leilani describes Edie as a “dysfunctional urban hungry woman”, who shows a type of psychological complexity and millennial angst that is usually reserved for books about white millennial women. Leilani goes on to say, “I wanted to write a Black woman who is dogged and hungry and who f***s up.” And well, Edie is all three of those things. Even more refreshing is Edie’s brutal honesty when describing herself: “I have great breasts, which have warped my spine […] I have trouble making friends and men lose interest in me when I talk.” Edie is no one’s heroine but she doesn’t come across as pitiful either, she is resourceful, clever and droll but never pitiful.
Another thing I loved about this novel is Leilani’s use of long sentences, many of which are run-on sentences. Yes, I know we were all taught in English class that run-on sentences are bad, but Leilani's use of this grammatical faux-pas to demonstrate the continuous stream of Edie's thoughts is just another example of Leilani's writing prowess. One of my favorite solecisms takes place after Edie is fired but before she leaves the building and she takes a look at the books offered by the publisher's Diversity Giveaway:
I go up to the table and scan the books, and there are a few new ones: a slave narrative
about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father's estate; a slave narrative
about a runaway's friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teaches her
how to read; a domestic drama about a black maid who, like Schrödinger's cat, is both
alive and dead, an unseen, nurturing presence who exists only within the bounds of her
employer's four walls; an "urban" romance where everybody dies by gang violence;
and a book about a Cantonese restaurant, which may or may not have been written by a
white woman from Utah, whose descriptions of her characters rely primarily on rice-
I am no grammar expert but lack of periods aside, in addition to being hilarious, this sentence also shows Leilani's incisive critique of the current state of Black fiction in America. I mean those categories basically sum up almost 3/4 of the books I have read this year!
Luster is also very cleverly written with many witty and memorable one-liners: “There are times when I interact with kids and recall my abortion fondly, moments like this when I cross paths with a child who is clearly a drag.” Edie’s comparison of Rebecca and Eric is equally humorous: “Rebecca [is] a lonely, carnivorous bird, Eric a vegetarian mammal with a short, panicked life.” And with Edie, Leilani often throws in some astute observations about life in America as a Black woman that I can definitely relate to: “I interview will despite my nerves, and while I wish I could take credit for that, my ability to maintain human form and make a good impression is all about my skin. The expectations of me in these settings are frequently so low, it would be impossible not to surpass them.” In his review, Brandon Yu describes Leilani’s writing as “haunted and poetic, brimming with incisive jabs at the indignities and disorientations of young Black womanhood”. He goes on to add that these observations and realities are treated as “pedestrian” and never feel “like stand-ins for a treatise on the ‘isms’ of America”. Instead, Edie’s encounters with her white coworkers or Eric and Rebecca “unfold strangely in Edie’s lonesome, mournful world”. So, although Edie’s experiences as a Black woman are relatable, they also seem unique to Edie as a result of her experiences and her background, kind of like, you know, Black women in real life.
However, there were a few things I didn’t like about the novel. First, I thought that the other characters could have been fleshed out better. For example, although the reader is privy to Edie’s thoughts and is given a lot of her familial background, there is still so much we don’t know about her. For example, where is the rest of her family? Does she have cousins or half-siblings? How is it that she never made friends in college? And considering Rebecca is the main supporting character in the book, the reader doesn’t really learn much about her. For example, why did she agree to an open marriage? Was she interested in dating other people? And although Eric does not play as important a role in the second half of the novel, knowing more about him would have helped fill in some of the gaps in Rebecca’s story, for instance, why does he have so much suppressed anger? And does Rebecca know that he likes to hit women?
Another thing that I didn’t understand is how is it that Edie is a such keen observer of the people around her and honest about herself: “I am an office slut”, but she never questions her tendency to self-medicate, self-mutilate and allow men to abuse her. In the novel, the reader gets a very good synopsis of Edie’s background going all the way back to her maternal grandmother’s life and includes the slow deterioration of her parent’s marriage and the almost non-existent relationship she had with her father. So, the reader has a pretty good idea why Edie is the way she is, but it isn’t clear whether Edie believes that she has psychological problems. For example, Edie loves to paint but at the start of the novel, she hasn’t painted in two years and she has a difficult time completing a self-portrait. Although the reader gets some insight into why Edie stopped painting, it isn’t clear if Edie has also connected those dots and knows why she is unable to complete a self-portrait.
Book reviewer Tomi Obara said that readers who enjoyed Normal People would also enjoy Luster. Having read Normal People and watched the Hulu series based on the novel, I have to disagree. Although Marianne and Edie share many of the same issues, for example, allowing men to hurt them, otherwise Marianne is a well-adjusted adult with a wide social circle, people who look out for her (for example, Connell and his mom) and prefers long term relationships to Edie’s casual hookups. Instead, I think Luster more closely matches Queenie (review coming soon!), a book about a young British woman of Jamaican ancestry, whose life goes into freefall while “on a break” from her relationship with her long-term boyfriend. Although Carty-Williams (author of Queenie) and Leilani treat their female protagonists very differently, both women share a proclivity for office hookups and casual sex, have similar jobs, are in similar precarious financial situations and are in abusive relationships with white men. However, Edie doesn’t have the same supportive family and friends as Queenie and Edie doesn’t seem to be on the brink on a nervous breakdown in quite the same way that Queenie is.
I enjoyed reading Luster and I give it 3 ½ out of 5 stars. Luster is an intimate look inside the life of a Black female millennial, but not every young Black woman, just one out of many stories that make up this diverse and underrepresented demographic. The novel is a short (240 pages) and engaging read and I would recommend Luster to those who love literary fiction in general and women’s fiction specifically. Although Luster explores single Black womanhood in contemporary New York City, the novel has many themes that are relevant and timely for millennials of all races, where worries about student loans, working in the gig economy and losing health insurance are constant stressors. Most importantly however, Luster shows that the “journey to self-actualization is never linear.”