Luster by Raven Leilani
Category: Contemporary Fiction
First Publication Date: 4th August 2020
I received an advance copy via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: Edie is stumbling her way through her twenties—sharing a subpar apartment in Bushwick, clocking in and out of her admin job, making a series of inappropriate sexual choices. She’s also, secretly, haltingly figuring her way into life as an artist. And then she meets Eric, a digital archivist with a family in New Jersey, including an autopsist wife who has agreed to an open marriage—with rules. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscapes of contemporary sexual manners and racial politics weren’t hard enough, Edie finds herself unemployed and falling into Eric’s family life, his home. She becomes hesitant friend to his wife and a de facto role model to his adopted daughter. Edie is the only black woman young Akila may know.
Luster is part of a trend of stories about young women making terrible decisions, clearly in need of therapy and struggling to belong in a society from which they feel disconnected. It’s a subgenre I really enjoy reading, and I’m always looking for a book that will give me the chaotic experience of reading The Pisces, My Year of Rest and Relaxation or Supper Club. I enjoy the dry humor and the sharp critique of society that comes from such books, and with Luster you definitely get that! It’s a quite typical book of that subgenre.
Still, I had a somewhat mixed experience with it, in which I really adored some parts, how insightful and pointed the writing was, how Edie goes through the world as a complicated woman and the stakes are that much higher because she’s Black; but I spent most of the book feeling quite tired by the particular way she made her choices and the constant humiliations she went through, little cruel remarks sprinkled all over the pages that made me deflate a little every time. This was quite exhausting to read, just waiting for the next thing that for sure would come, and hoping this time Edie would defend herself or make a decision that showed she was done being treated that way. Her justifications on why she continued her relationship with the dead fish of a man also did not feel too convincing to me: she knows she’s with him just to be with someone and explains it, but I still did not feel that this justification was entirely understandable. I also did not feel any chemistry between them at all.
Edie was clearly a smart woman, and still we never really get to see that shine. Her relationship with every single person in this book involves being humiliated in some way. The plot did not seem to go anywhere either, meandering this way and that, and it lacked an emotional punch to me. I truly hoped to see more of her painting, of her feelings towards Akila, of her feelings. I did not quite feel a passion from her even when it comes to painting.
I’m sorry I sound so negative about this book, but I truly expected to love it! I did enjoy the writing most of the time and the observations Edie makes on sexuality, on racism at work, about being a token, and how the stakes are higher for her as a Black woman really impressed me and gave depth to the story – she’s clearly sharp, intelligent and witty. I think I just wanted a bit more connection to her in order to fully feel the emotional impact of what she was going through. Maybe I’m getting a bit burned out from this trope – I did not enjoy The Harpy by Megan Hunter very much either.
Luster an exploration of the life of Edie, a Black woman who makes questionable choices all around, but she is so smart and so full of potential as an artist. I enjoyed that the writing was sharp and flowery, although I think it was a bit heavy on the flowery, and the way the author explores the power dynamics in Edie’s relationships at work and in the complicated arrangement with her lover’s family. If you love the disaster woman trope, I think that you will enjoy this!