In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Raven Leilani’s Luster, recent winner of The John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, is our next selection.
Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “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 is also haltingly, fitfully giving heat and air to the art that simmers inside her. 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 invited into Eric’s home―though not by Eric. She becomes a hesitant ally to his wife and a de facto role model to his adopted daughter. Edie may be the only Black woman young Akila knows.”
Luster by Raven Leilani is written with stunning attention to detail and intention. There is an unapologetic expectation that her readers are well informed on racism in the United States, and can follow along whether the narrator, Edie, uses terminology like ichthyology or describes Brazil nuts with a derogatory term with no further explanations of what the words or phrases mean. Edie’s voice is honest, frustrated, and at times confused about the world, but it is powerfully built with well written thought processes and details that weep slowly into the story when it feels true for Edie to reveal them. She is unashamed of her thoughts and it allows the reader to understand her better as she makes decisions in her young twenties.
Where dialogue could be used as a catalyst for plot or character revelations, Luster treats it as secondary and only uses dialogue when necessary. The choice to use very little back and forth exchanges, especially between the main characters, forced relationships to be shown through actions and body language, which at times created heartbreaking honesty between them.
Through all of her personal struggles, the one explored most deeply is Edie’s complicated relationship with herself as an artist. Her character knows that even with everything else—the abuse, the homelessness, the complicated love life—she could be closer to inner peace if she found her artistic groove. With her own tenacity and later the help of Rebecca, an unexpected ally, she makes and takes opportunities to explore her artistic shortcomings until she is able to call herself an artist. When Luster comes to a close, Edie still has a lot to figure out as a young woman, but she has found her artistic courage and through that finds the strength to continue pushing through life.
Raven Leilani’s novel, Luster, depicts the story of Edie, a young black woman stumbling through her twenties, lost, alone, and confused, searching for some motivation and purpose in her life. Many topics are brought up ranging from police brutality and racism to childhood trauma, sex, a dream deferred, and briefly, God. It’s a detailed read filled with action verb infused paragraphs and lengthy sentences listing all of the things that exist in Edie’s world. The beginning of the story briefly mentions Edie’s feelings of paralysis towards her art and then goes back to it again near the end. As a reader, I was more attached to this conflict of the self compared to the conflict of Edie being a mistress. The two conflicts dance around each other throughout the story, but never feel like they connect entirely, like two different puzzle pieces. The dream deferred is the main conflict within Edie. The mistress is the conflict produced out of Edie. As a reader, I empathized with how greatly this dream deferred impacted Edie and how paralyzed she felt. For this reason, I wanted to read more about it.
As a reader, the amount of sex Edie has doesn’t matter to me because my mind retracts back to this one, very impactful paragraph on pages twenty-six and twenty-seven. The lines, “I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad. It is almost,” and “But whenever I have tried to paint in the last two years, I have felt paralyzed.” So little is said and yet a lot of truth comes out of it. I wanted to read more. The amount of times Edie has been naked with various men cannot even compare to how vulnerable and seen she is in this paragraph. It’s the best one in the book, since it shows the readers how lost, alone, and confused she is. If more time could have been spent on exploring Edie’s paralysis and her deferred dream, and less on being a mistress, the conflicts could balance out and the focus could shift back to Edie’s main conflict of the self, supporting her return to painting at the end of the novel.
Raven Leilani, through a beautifully solemn prose, illustrates lives intertwining and the organic messiness of seeking change when happiness with one’s lot has dimmed. Luster follows a cast of four that move through their bonds formed and broken with all the clumsiness of wrong puzzle pieces trying to fit together. We have a well-to-do family of three from a suburb, the Walkers, who are a unit on the outside but are stray ships that barely meet on the inside, sticking together for the sake of their adopted daughter. And we have Edie, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, a single Black woman living in a busted apartment, working for a publishing firm as one of two Black women on staff until she is fired. Like those poor puzzle pieces that struggle to fit with each other, these four people see a chance for their desired stability or instability within each other. Eric Walker lusts for an escape from his archivist life and responsibility to his family through an open marriage and narcotics. Rebecca Walker, who works in a morgue where everything in death is certain, lusts for the life she gave up when she married Eric, the life of a free and wild woman who leaves a mark. The 13-year-old adopted Black daughter Akila Walker lusts for a place of belonging and a stable family after being passed from home-to-home seemingly at the times when things felt safe. Edie, as one who battles loneliness and disappointment after disappointment lusts for the physicality of romance and sex as well as the emotional and physical stability of a man who chooses her. As an artist and a creator, Edie lusts as well for that thing all artists strive for: imprinting herself, her life, and her memory into her paintings so that people will know she existed.
The odd circumstances that bring these four together—Edie and Eric’s affair, Edie losing her publishing job, and a whim from the slighted Rebecca—allow the characters all to seek out what they lust for in each other, ruminate over it through these strange bonds, and see if it is all worth holding onto. Akila finds unspoken company in Edie, the latter of whom becomes the equally unspoken mentor for Akila as a Black woman. Edie and Eric find the thrill of the physical within each other; Eric finds the freedom of drugs, roughness, and secrets with his mistress, and Edie finds this older man with a secured job and a lovely home as someone she can affix herself to for some semblance of safety. Rebecca lusts to know Edie’s appeal for Eric to see what she herself is lacking, hoping to discover what newness Edie’s young body brings him. Edie lusts for the sureness of Rebecca’s steps and being unquestionably present in every space. And yet the characters under the surfaces they themselves polish for the world outside are all just troubled people trying to shine again and be desired as they desire. Luster muses solemnly about how human it is to yearn and be wanted, to be lusted after in the platonic sense—home, family, belonging—as well as the romantic—sex, love, physicality. Luster reveals that maybe that’s the shine of life, that it’s more than enough to want different for ourselves in these times where nothing is certain, and everything is changing outside our control.
Some books we read for the pleasure of a compelling story. There are books we read to be impressed by the delightful prose. Other times, we read deep into the night waiting in suspense for the big “reveal.” Luster is a powerful example of what can be accomplished when a writer leverages superb technique and an unreal story to enthrall readers well past dawn.
Leilani’s hypnotic prose is invaluable to the narrative. Line by line she skillfully uses humor and sardonic tones to move the plot forward and build character development, while also using Edie’s experience to make larger statements on class, gender, and race. Furthermore, while the surreal plot may be off-putting for some, Lelani’s embrace of bizarrely specific details serves to both correct that potential criticism and build further favor of suspending the reader’s belief.
By far Leilani’s handling of Edie’s and Rebecca’s complicated relationship serves to be the most compelling aspect of the novel. While their circumstances (wife and mistress) set them at odds, Leilani strays from indulging this trope beyond where needed. Instead, she inserts routine moments for bonding and observation. She leverages plot points like painting at the morgue to build scenes with simultaneous hate, information reveal, and sexual tension that builds the momentum to a satisfactory conclusion that feels meaningful to both characters.
As far as award-winning debut novels go, Luster goes beyond expectation and is poised to be the next must-read recommendation.
Curated by Brandon Williams