Luster by Raven Leilani
Edie is a 23-year-old artist living in New York and working a day-job at a publishing company. While struggling to figure out her place in this world and how to co-exist with others, she slips into a romantic relationship with a married digital archivist, Eric, from New Jersey. Eric’s wife, a medical examiner named Rebecca, has consented to an open marriage with certain rules, all of which Edie seems to break. After being fired, Edie finds herself unintentionally living with Eric, Rebecca, and their teenaged daughter, Akila. The remainder of the story examines this phase in Edie’s struggle to build and maintain relationships with those around her and develop her artistic talent.
Although Edie makes questionable choices and seems to have difficulty understanding her sexuality, she unapologetically takes ownership of her body (to the extent she can) and attempts to find pleasure in using her body to make others uncomfortable. Edie is messy, intelligent, complicated, beautiful, disruptive, emotional, and real. Knowing that Edie has an affair with an older white man and knowing that Edie becomes a role model to the white couple’s Black daughter, I was concerned about a potential stereotypical representation of a young Black woman. However, Leilani does not put Edie into any of the stereotypical neatly packaged boxes that perpetuate racism and bore readers. At moments that could arguably be stereotypical, Leilani’s choice to utilize a stream-of-consciousness narration style allows for a deeper exploration of these ideas through Edie’s perspective. Leilani portrays each grotesque and beautiful moment that makes up this phase of Edie’s life with authenticity and without judgment. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the focus not only on the relationship between Edie and Eric, but also between Edie and Rebecca, and between Edie and Akila. However, at its heart, this book is about Edie’s relationship with herself.
The tone of the book involves dark humor, sadness, and loneliness with small moments of joyful escape. The writing style follows Edie’s mental associations and emotions through her memories and her ponderings on the meanings of the events in her life. Edie’s thoughts are matter-of-fact yet poetic. This debut novel is a work of art. It isn’t a story you read; it’s a story you experience. I would especially recommend this book to fans of Alice Walker, as it reminded me of You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down. Although I would recommend this novel to all contemporary fiction fans, readers may want to be aware of trigger warnings for racism, police brutality, gun violence, physical abuse, abortion, miscarriage, and drug addiction.
Special thanks to our friends at Libro.fm, who provided a copy of Luster for me to listen to.
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