The past few books I’ve read were quite difficult for me to get through, which I’m not sure is because of reading burnout (is this a thing or did I make it up to justify my laziness?) or a general disinterest in the plot, but Raven Leilani’s Luster is the exact opposite. As always, I’m eternally confused by the magic it must take for people to write fiction (looking at you, Megan) and Raven’s debut novel is the epitome of otherworldly. I finished Luster in the time it would take to dry my hair and watch two episodes of Lovecraft Country (can we please talk about the ending of episode 2???) almost simultaneously because her writing is extraordinary (ex: “‘I’m an open book,’ I say, thinking of all the men who have found it illegible. I made mistakes with these men. I dove for their legs as they tried to leave my house. I chased them down the hall with a bottle of Listerine, saying, I can be a beach read, I can get rid of all these clauses, please, I’ll just revise,” (pg. 12). Before I melt into a puddle of compliments for Raven, I want to obviously share my reactions to the story and why it’s such a unique take on love, self worth, and the unexpected relationships that hold us.
The protagonist of Luster—Edie—is young, my age, with a job she hates and immense trauma following the deaths of both her parents and a laundry list of failed relationships. The plot of the novel initially centers around her new relationship with Eric, a man in an open marriage, whose rules and personality are often off-putting (to me, not Edie). And while I was initially invested in how their connection might evolve, I was fully sucked into the story once Edie meets Rebecca, Eric’s wife, in their home after she sneaks in. Around 3/4 of the book is about Edie and Rebecca’s tumultuous but often endearing and loving attachment when the latter reluctantly invites her husband’s girlfriend to stay in their house while he’s away. This offer isn’t as odd as it sounds once Edie becomes something of an older sister figure/role model to Eric and Rebecca’s adopted daughter Akila. While Eric is away on a business trip (and unaware that his girlfriend is living in his house with his family thanks to his wife), Edie, Rebecca, and Akila form an unconventional almost-family unit wherein Rebecca “anonymously” leaves Edie money, art supplies (she’s an aspiring painter), feminine products, clothes, etc., and Edie accompanies her to her job as an autopsist and teaches Akila how to care for her hair. As we inched closer to the end, I couldn’t give a shit about what happened to Eric and I only wanted Edie, Rebecca, and Akila to be happy together. The result of the book is a rejection of what we think love should be—romantic between a pair of people—and a lesson to embrace the accidental alliances that help us grow and become better versions of ourselves.
Luster leaves no emotion untouched, especially as it analyzes the relationship between Edie’s sexuality and her conflicting desires to be simultaneously alone and wanted. I loved this passage from the book in the later half once Edie closely examines how her relationship with Eric is devastating and devoid of meaning, which is not unlike that of her previous experiences with men, “Instead we meet in the dark, and all the wholly unoriginal, too generous things men are prone to saying before they come sound startling and true. Tender, silly words. Vocabulary you receive as a good sport and volley back with your eyes closed. Because when it is over, when he is bending over to collect his pants, there is a world beyond the door with traffic and measles and no room for these heady, optimistic words,” (170). How does one write this way? How does Raven so accurately illustrate the often lack of romance in intimate moments? This attention to detail about the intricacies of sex and love is so beautiful, I don’t have any better words to describe it. I was and am enthralled by her language throughout the entirety of Luster and I think I’ll revisit this book forever (it’s making my top 10 ever now!)