The premise of Raven Leilani’s Luster is simple enough: A Black woman in her early 20s begins an affair with a middle-aged white man. Go down past the surface and you could expound on the fact that the man has been seeking for an affair with his wife’s permission, and that he and the main character have to abide by his wife’s rules, a situation which only gets stranger when the main character loses her job and moves in with the couple. But the truth of Luster is stranger and less titilating the premise—or the first few chapters of the book—suggest.
Edie is slogging through life at her unfulfilling job at a publishing house that both she and her rival point out she should either be promoted or fired from already. But she’s good at it, and it keeps her in the orbit of the art department, which she aspires to join. After work, she returns to her cheap, pest-ridden Bushwick apartment with a roommate who is fine but with whom harmony is best achieved when they are not occupying the apartment at the same time. Meeting Eric, then, thanks to a dating app, is water to Edie’s parched life. He’s twice her age and things with him move interminably slow, but the build-up is exciting (far more than the eventual sex).
What grows, too, is Edie’s curiosity-bordering-on-obsession with Eric’s wife, Rebecca, and it turns out the feeling is mutual. But the story doesn’t go from here like it seems like it will—there is no ménage à trois in the New Jersey suburb, no forgoing of Eric for each other. There is instead a dance of sorts between wariness and cautious amiability. Rebecca buys Edie paints and takes her to her workplace—a morgue—to let Edie sketch and paint the corpses there. Edie helps around the house, sometimes, and paints the people and objects within it.
Eric and Rebecca’s adopted daughter, Akila, forms another complication in the tenuous arrangement. Akila is also Black and being raised by well-intentioned parents who are also clueless about the subtle but gaping differences between their two racial experiences. Edie’s own experience is a wealth of information for Akila in terms things like how to care for her hair, but Edie’s presence is also a threat to the girl’s stability of life—if Edie causes Eric and Rebecca’s already-brittle marriage to break, Akila’s hard-won stability is gone.
Luster is hard to read at times. Not the prose, and not even the content, but as an example and reflection of some uncomfortable truths in our society. Edie’s struggles at her publishing-house job and, later, at her Postmates-equivalent gig work that all but consumed her as she tried to keep her head above water stressed me out in ways that felt uncomfortably familiar. Later, that constant sensation of uncertainty—that near-drowning—follows her to New Jersey where she applies for every kind of job she can while staying in Eric and Rebecca’s spare bedroom as The Other Woman. Her savings dwindle. She gets passed over for jobs. Her continued presence there is at Rebecca’s whim.
One of the things Luster does so well is show how inadequate the binary of “like” and “dislike” is for art. Did I “like” reading Luster, in that the book filled me with some joy by virtue of my eyes passing over the words? No. But I couldn’t stop reading it. I felt like it was a body of water I waded into and the words clung to my skin like a film of oil. I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve recommended it to multiple people already, referenced it in separate discussions about race and capitalism, and will probably evangelize it for months to come. So I didn’t “like” Luster, but I can think of only praise for it, too.
The tension is palpable but one of Leilani’s great strengths in the subtlety that she goes about illustrating her characters and the plot. Instead of them having declared motivations and being cast in specific roles, they all feel like shadows—mere suggestions of the complex thoughts and feelings happening beneath the surface. In other words, more like real people than we typically experience or expect characters to be. Leilani’s writing is strong, but rich with nuance, which is especially important in dealing with the multitude of racial issues within the plot.
Edie’s rival at the publishing house is another Black woman, meaning that both of them are playing the role of the diversity hire—and her rival is doing it better. Staying in the suburbs, she feels the watchful eyes of the otherwise all-white neighborhood. There’s a real danger in writing about subjects as volatile as race that anything can come across as preachy or damning, but in Luster‘s case, it merely feels raw. In one terrifying and enraging moment, police come to investigate the death of a neighborhood dog and wrestle Edie and Akila to the ground, despite Akila’s insistence that she lives there, until Rebecca returns home.
“I shouldn’t have talked back. … I feel really stupid,” Akila says afterward.
“No, there’s nothing we could have done,” Edie replies. “It was always going to go that way.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Akila asks.
“You’re not going to feel better about this,” Edie says. “You’re going to feel angry, for a long time, and that’s your right.”
Luster was, obviously, written before George Floyd’s death and the protests that followed. It was written before this round of racial consciousness. But for an outside audience (in my case, a white woman), it’s a sharp reminder of the different Americas that exist based on race. At a certain point, I wondered if, in my usual white-centric view of the world, this was written at least in part to show that other America—which is why I was so heartened to read that Leilani wrote it for Black women. I will happily stand on tip-toes to peer through the windows.