Luster by Raven Leilani (Farrar Straus & Giroux)
“For most of my life, I have not had to tell anyone where I planned to be. I could walk the length of Broadway without a face. I could perish in a fire and have no one realize until a firefighter came across my teeth in the ash.”
July 3, 2020
Dear Mr. Hemingway,
You once said, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life”. Loneliness oftentimes yields individual efforts that beg to be explored. I can only presume you know it well. This palpable feeling of loneliness exists on the pages of some of your finest writing. You touch upon this solitude in Cat in the Rain and The Old Man and the Sea. Moving forward now to 21st-century writing, Luster, by Raven Leilani is a sharply written story that takes on this complex emotion and state of being with a modern flare. In her debut novel, Leilani offers a powerful take on the lengths one will go to validate their existence. Her captivating story is an eye-opening experience that examines race, sexual exploration and the internal craving to be acknowledged. Luster is a contemporary triumph ideal for 2020. Let’s take a look.
“He is the most obvious thing that has ever happened to me, and all around the city it is happening to other silly, half-formed women excited by men who’ve simply met the prerequisite of living a little more life, a terribly unspecial thing that is just what happens when you keep on getting up and brushing your teeth and going to work and ignoring the whisper that comes to you at night and tells you it would be easier to be dead.”
Edie is a young Black woman in her 20’s trying to make sense of her life. As an aspiring artist, she scrutinizes the people around her with her paintbrush. Through her poor choices and actions, Edie seeks out the universe to just notice her. Not only does her inappropriate behaviors at work lead her to unemployment, but she meets Eric (an older white man) on an online dating app and begins a relationship with him. Their time together is anything but typical. Edie’s and Eric’s affair swells to more than just cyber sex when she discovers that he is married and in an open marriage with his wife. Edie’s perspective on life changes when she finds herself living at Eric’s house with his wife and adopted a Black daughter. While bunking in a spare bedroom, she continues to paint those around her on anything that resembles a blank canvas. As relationships evolve under the same roof, the discomfort of their circumstances continues to widen.
“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 subject to a close and inappropriate reading that occasionally finds its way, often insufficiently, into paint.”
After reading Luster, I had to sit with my thoughts to make sense of what I read. The plot of this story appears straightforward, but the depth of Leilani’s writing has no boundaries. I enjoyed the clever way she intertwined Edie’s need for painting with her constant self-reflection. I immediately fell into Edie’s world filled with tons of baggage, messy characters, and clouds of sadness. I was particularly intrigued by her surprise relationship with Eric’s wife and adopted a Black daughter. The co-mingling of Edie and Eric’s family added a layer of despair I would never have known. I love how Leilani made me feel uncomfortable under Eric’s roof. There is a bizarreness to their codependency that fascinated me and a dolefulness to her characters that I desperately wanted to remedy. It was crazy how my feelings of intrigue and frustration could exist all at the same time. The unconventional dynamics and issues of race provided much clarity on these dimly lit characters that I so desired. While there are a few splashes of dark humor throughout Leilani’s story, her book was more of a provocative wonder that implores to be talked about. The visible feeling of loneliness is widespread in this book. If you are in the market for a relevant and meaty read, Luster sparks conversation…….read this with your bookish friends.
Until next time my friend!
Your Biggest Fan
P.S. Thank you to Farrar Straus & Giroux and Netgalley for an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.