Even if Raven Leilani’s Luster hadn’t been selected as a Well-Read Black Girl book club pick, I would have elected to read it. The marketing and publicity for the novel was such that one can only hope for their debut novel. I saw the book everywhere announcing its August 2020 release. Luster repeatedly popped up in my social media feed as a sponsored ad in the Instagram stories and again in various bookstagrammers’ posts. I’m aware that many receive free advance copies, but I’d like to believe they only stand behind books they actually like. The publicity blitz reminded me of the pre-release buzz for My Sister, the Serial Killer, another debut novel with both serious and humorous themes.
Like Serial Killer, all the hype made me break down and buy the book in hardcover, even though I’m trying to limit purchases to paperbacks. I don’t know how many times I have to learn the lesson that because a book is overly hyped, especially pre-release, does not mean I’ll love it. I liked Luster. I thought I’d love it, especially when I cracked open the book for the first time while sitting on a plane waiting to take off to Boston. I read and posted the first page. The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light. Juicy!
At its core, Luster is a novel about a young woman Stumbling and Struggling—note the capital S—to find her way, without the help of a real support system of family or friends. Ironically, it’s after she goes through a major crisis and trauma that she admits to herself and out loud to another person that she’s an artist.
Even though I’m nearly twice the age of the twenty-something year old Edie, I can relate to her in that she felt stuck in her entry level editorial position at a publishing house. Year after year, I wallowed in the position of Editorial Assistant, even though my responsibilities swelled far beyond. Management promised and dragged their heels on even just a title change. Edie is also in the awkward space of feeling both happy and uncomfortable when finally, another Black person is hired at the office. There’s the innate feeling that perhaps she’ll become fast friends on the grounds that they’re both “others,” but she’s also aware that the higher ups will compare their work ethics and output, so there’s a palpable tension. I’ve been in this position all too much in both academic and professional settings. I lament being the only, then if/when there are others like me I get excited and nervous. I either befriend (or let them befriend me) or I steer clear of them.
I could also relate to Edie being a young woman trying to navigate life without her mother, being strapped for cash (she gets creative with meal purchases) and struggling to regain her creative streak. In Edie’s case, her artistic passion and outlet is painting, though she also loves taking photographs. It’s difficult to make art when nothing in life is going right and if you can’t really afford supplies.
What I can’t relate to (but wish I could) are Edie’s countless and meaningless sexual encounters, a string of which take place with her male co-workers. She provides a list of who, how, and where. At the end of this list is Eric, an older white man she meets online and eventually moves in with, after being invited to do so by his wife! Yup, it’s an open marriage, both have, um, interesting professions. Another interesting twist in the couple’s marriage is their adopted young Black daughter, whom Eric never mentioned. Edie haltingly befriends Akila. Calling it a big sister-little sister relationship would be a stretch, but unlike the case at the office, Edie doesn’t feel threatened by the presence of a fellow “other.” Only Edie can teach Akila the ins and outs of managing her kinky hair, and Akila gives her tips on how to navigate her parents.
Overall, the only reason/part I enjoyed reading Luster is because while it allowed some escapism through some escapades I’d never partake in, I could also see myself in Edie. Through her awkwardness and poor decisions, I root for her, which means I also root for myself. On the other hand, at some point the novel seemed to take a strange turn in which it seemed like it was a totally different story. I had high hopes for reading it when I started it, but I was left baffled.