Sharply-observed debut novel lingers in discomfort
Luster, the buzzy debut novel from Raven Leilani, is a sparkly and tender examination of sex, love, race, capitalism and a whole lot more. Reading it felt like waking up from a very lovely dream. When we meet its narrator, Edie, she’s working in children’s book publishing, longing to make a career as a painter, and going on her first date with a man in an open marriage. Quickly, though, the tenor of the story changes from a being-young-in-the-city romantic comedy to a narrative like nothing I’ve ever read before.
In a traditional romance, the central relationship might progress after our characters have sex or decide to move in together. Edie and her married boyfriend Eric do both of those things, but Eric’s family comes along for the ride. Feeling lonely and powerful, Edie breaks into Eric’s home after their first hook up and subsequent ghosting, and comes face-to-face with his wife Rebecca.
“And then for a week Eric doesn’t answer my texts, or my emails, or my calls, and I am maintaining my smile in the middle of my open office plan,” Leilani writes. “And now I know where he lives so ten days after having fucked him in the bed he shares with his wife I go right up to the door and find it unlocked, and no one is home, so I walk around the house and pick up these cold lemons on the counter and roll them around in my hands…[A] door opens to a closet with a collection of women’s clothes and I gather the silk and wool and cashmere in my hands and then there is a voice, and I turn and standing in the doorway of the attached bathroom in yellow rubber gloves and a T-shirt that says Yale is his wife.”
Rather than veering into some kind of murderous, revenge-motivated thriller, Luster lingers in this discomfort; for the rest of the novel, Edie lives with Eric, Rebecca, and their adopted daughter Akila. Edie’s lost her publishing job and her crappy apartment, and the couple hopes Edie will “know what to do with Akila simply because we are both black,” Leilani narrates.
What emerges are Edie’s absolutely complex, often beautiful, relationships with those three characters. Edie and Eric’s romance quickly becomes a plot device, fun in the beginning but far less juicy than the narrator’s connections with the women in his life. But it allows Leilani to layer in Edie’s loneliness and anxiety, her meditations on intimacy and solitude, and some beautiful writing about fandoms.
From the fateful meeting in Rebecca’s closet, the novel’s tension builds toward their eventual confrontation, in the same way a romcom builds toward a couple finally admitting their feelings for one another. At some point, that tension loomed so large that I started to wonder if Luster would end with Edie and Rebecca running off together. It doesn’t, but in the one brief, closing scene where they do allow in their mutual feelings for each other, it is beautiful, exciting and quickly heartbreaking. In these moments is where the novel is the richest.
“Rebecca pulls up to the convention center and tells us to get out, and that she will find a parking spot and catch up later, and I have this feeling which is 78 percent nausea but 22 percent the dark city ozone opening up to let in a single front of sun, and Rebecca beckons me over and adjusts the top of my iron bikini [costume], which has been hanging on one hook,” Edie narrates earlier in their relationship. “She presses her hand into the center of my back and says, ‘There,’ and when I look back at her, she has already turned back to the wheel.”
Luster is a novel with a black protagonist that definitely tackles the experience of black womanhood. In the current moment where people think you can solve racism by buying some anti-racist nonfiction from a black-owned bookstore, Leilani writes black, potentially queer, characters with nuance and humor and joy.
To this point, Leilani lists the forthcoming children’s books from the publisher that fired Edie in a very pointed critique of the kinds of “diversity” stories that get sold. She lists off “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 slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies; a domestic drama about a Black maid who, like Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead.”
Edie is more than just a metaphor for black suffering. Instead, she confronts the gig economy, creativity, job loss, found and lost love, depression, loss, self-hatred, pregnancy, abortion, and chronic constipation, while also navigating the world as a black woman. She’s not Captain America perfect or a walking tragedy; she’s just a regular ol’ kind of crappy millennial.
She’s so funny and her observations are so spot-on. I could have a whole review of just my favorite lines. As she gets ready for her first date with Eric, Edie narrates, “I put on a complex pair of underwear that is not so much underwear as a bundle of string, and I stand before the mirror. I think to myself, ‘You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing.’”
Luster is a romantic comedy that Leilani drills down to its most basic parts–love, some jokes, no central tragedy, lots of sex. But in the end, the relationship between Edie and the married couple she’s gotten to know is over. Leilani wraps up her happily ever after in Edie herself, who learns about herself, finds a better job and apartment, and lives a great story that she can maybe sell to Buzzfeed one day. But Edie (and Leilani) are true artists, and probably long for more than internet fame.
“A way is always made to document how we manage to survive, or in some cases, how we don’t. So I’ve tried to reproduce an inscrutable thing. I’ve made my own hunger into a practice, made everyone who passes through my life a subject to a close and inappropriate reading that occasionally finds its way, often insufficiently, into paint,” Luster concludes. “And when I am alone with myself, this is what I am waiting for someone to do to me, with merciless, deliberate hands, to put me down onto the canvas so that when I’m gone, there will be a record, proof that I was here.”
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 4, 2020)