At times it is hard to believe that Luster is Raven Leilani’s debut novel. She writes with the confidence and flair of a seasoned veteran. She moves with ease between humor and commentaries on class, relationships, and race. The narration of the novel—provided by Edie, is searing and honest, full of razors that live on Edie’s tongue.
Luster follows Edie—a 20-something Black woman who is suffering through post-grad life, not really focused on anything. She doesn't seem to be passionate about much except for making art. She lives in a subpar apartment in New York City—the kind that comes to mind when you think of grimy New York City apartments. She doesn’t seem to have too many friends or much of a social life, choosing to fill much of her free time with inappropriate sexual partners. She spends her days working in publishing where she has had several inappropriate sexual relationships. Her behavior at her job and firing is the event that sets into motion the subsequent events of the novel.
While we learn very early on that Edie has met a man named Eric on a dating app who is married with a family in New Jersey, much of the novel doesn’t focus on that relationship. It quickly changes focus to the relationship that develops between Edie and Eric’s wife and daughter—Rebecca and Akila, respectively. When Edie is fired, she is no longer able to pay rent and she unexpectedly finds herself a new member of Eric and Rebecca’s household. Which to so many probably seems like such an awkward situation to put yourself in, but as it turns out is a bit of a symbiotic relationship.
Edie has a home again, while Rebecca hopes that by bringing Edie home she and Eric’s adopted daughter Akila will have a friend and mentor. Although Akila has only been with Rebecca and Eric for two years, it is still a long time to live in a town and neighborhood where there is no one who you relate to, no one who looks like you. Not only is Akila the only Black person in the neighborhood, her hobbies—which include comics and video games—alienate her from other kids her age. As the book blurb states, ‘Edie may be the only Black woman young Akila knows.’
If you’ve ever been the only black person in a room then you can relate to how Edie and Akila feel living in the suburbs. While Edie is older and has more experience navigating these types of situations, this is a fairly new setting for Akila and one you can tell she is struggling with. Leilani navigates the emotions of Akila and her parents regarding her adoption and her race in such an authentically real way. It’s clear in their interactions with Akila and Edie that neither Rebecca or Eric have had many personal interactions or relationships with Black people or people of any other race. This is made more obvious in a scene where Eric is walking downstairs and after he comments on a smell in the house and walks into the kitchen to see someone getting their hair done, quickly and awkwardly tries to cover up the blunder. It’s not that Rebecca or Eric are bad parents, they just seem ignorant of what their daughter is experiencing and instead of attempting to talk to their daughter and educate themselves, Rebecca brings Edie home to become a mentor of sorts.
But Rebecca doesn’t bring Edie home just to help Akila navigate life in the suburbs. Through the relationship between Edie, Rebecca, Akila, and Eric, Leilani explores the loneliness that many people feel, even those in long-term marriages. Edie gets an insider’s look at just how lonely Rebecca is. She spends much of her time doing solitary activities when she isn’t at work. Take away the financial stability, the suburban backdrop and the family, and Edie could be looking at herself. Both go about their days floating by, although they both seem to be starved for companionship and because of this, reluctantly accept the presence of the other in their life.
When Edie moves into Eric and Rebecca’s home she is thrust into this world that she doesn’t know and that doesn’t care to know her at all while she is navigating and struggling to find her place in the world post grad. She has to deal with the inevitable end to the temporary home she’s been given and the knowledge that both Rebecca and Eric are using her and have no real interest in her or respect for her. In Edie, Leilani presents to the reader a portrayal of a young woman who is still trying to find her place in the world and trying to figure out what it is that she wants. As I heard another reader describe Edie—she is a hot mess. From her former apartment and her behavior at her job to her moving in with her date’s family and her newfound obsession with the family, she is constantly making bad decision after bad decision. It makes you wish you could reach in to shake her. But what 20-something doesn’t make bad decisions that go on to inform their lives in dramatic ways?
At times Edie seems to be self sabotaging, ruining opportunities that she has to improve her position in life. As she says in the novel—“I want all that and I want none of it.” She wants to both be alone and not, have meaningful relationships with others and not. She’s unsure of what she truly wants. This is something that is relatable, that game of tennis we play with ourselves and our wants and needs. She chooses to stay in this awkward arrangement because of what it offers her which is companionship, care, and love. Even though it is fleeting and on their terms.
Although at times Edie is difficult to like, the way in which Leilani has written the novel allows the reader to develop some sympathy towards her. She could be any young woman navigating life and everything that comes with trying to become the person they want to be. Edie is a Black woman, but that’s not all she is. She is multifaceted and Leilani celebrates that. She doesn’t allow Edie to fall into a stereotype of what a young Black woman is or isn’t supposed to be and she also doesn’t make any apologies or judgements. And that is refreshing to encounter in a novel.
By Rave Leilani
227 pages. 2020.