As the end of Black History Month approached, I wanted to celebrate the genius of a woman of color. I found this desire’s fulfillment in Luster by Raven Leilani, a debut novelist. The back cover touts an ingenue, an artist, a self-loather searching for meaning and love in the hustle and bustle and (roach-infested) frenzy of New York City.
Edie struggles, sometimes futilely, in her art and life. Her job as an admin is less-than satisfying; her relationships with men bring her no joy; and her apartment and roommate leave much to be desired. Only when she swipes right and finds Eric, a middle-aged man several years her senior, does Edie begin to feel like her life is taking a turn – perhaps for the better? Eric’s availability is complicated, however: he’s married, but his wife and he have an understanding, an (mostly) open marriage.
Throughout the course of a little less than a year, Edie fights to find intimacy – with Eric, his autopsy-conducting wife Rebecca, and their adopted daughter Akila – and her artistic voice. Through turns unexpected, riotous, and occasionally laughable, Edie learns to listen, to observe, and to appreciate the experiences that fall into her lap.
The complexities and nuance of Edie’s and Rebecca’s relationship push all boundaries. Edie’s relationship with Eric serves Rebecca, until it doesn’t. Rebecca’s willingness to share the bone-saw-sharp precision of her home and work environments work for Edie, until it doesn’t. And with each change, Edie’s blackness shines with luster – even when she feels flat, lusterless. She may be the only black “friend” that Rebecca’s daughter Akila will have in their otherwise white, middle-class neighborhood. The three women navigate a path that is uncharted: a mistress under the tutelage of her lover’s wife, a mistress advising her lover’s daughter on hair care products, a mistress seeking love from a family that eschews typicality. In the end, I found myself cheering for Edie, hoping she’ll find, accept, and foster her art as the most authentic part of her self.
Luster is sexy with moments of dark brooding, contemplative with comic moments found in the least likely of places, and naive with flashes of experience. Everything about Leilani’s language works. This book is perfect for folks who love shows like Fleabag and Broad City and books like My Year of Rest and Relaxation and The Mothers.