Three times over the course of Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, the 23-year-old narrator is on the receiving end of a comment where someone tells her just what is wrong with her generation. First, it comes from her older lover, then an ex-boyfriend, then her lover’s wife. “‘Why does it have to be my generation? Why can’t it be me, specifically?’” she responds to the latter. For as much as Edie sometimes fits the mold of a typical Gen Z character, and one living in New York—there are health care and student loan woes, polyamory, a low-paying job in publishing—Luster also tells a far more timeless story, that of a young woman trying to find herself.
Edie is the observant, self-aware protagonist who, despite her incredible intelligence, does not always make the smartest decisions. Early on, she lists the baker’s dozen of sexual encounters she’s had with coworkers and notes the less-than-pristine browsing history on her work computer. Her broader professional struggles are complicated by the fact that she is one of only two Black women in her department. The other woman is far more comfortable “doing that unthreatening aw-shucks shtick for all the professional whites” in order to move up. “I’d like to think the reason I’m not more dogged is because I know better,” Edie thinks. “But sometimes I look at her and wonder if the problem isn’t her, but me. Maybe the problem is that I am weak and overly sensitive. Maybe the problem is that I am an office slut.” The narrator’s substantial wit often comes paired with self-recriminations and worry, the novel’s humor and melancholy each making the other more potent.
Meanwhile, Edie is navigating the messy, charged beginnings of a relationship with Eric, a white man twice her age who’s in an open marriage. Despite the allure of the power imbalance between them, and Edie admitting that older men have a “different understanding of the clitoris,” he’s a bit of a drip, which the reader will recognize long before she does. On their first date, he takes her to Six Flags. On another, he arrives with rules, handwritten by his wife, for dating him. What most comes alive in these passages are all the negotiations, many beneath the surface and unspoken, that surround contemporary sex and dating. There’s the recalibration that happens in the exciting yet awkward jump from digital to face-to-face communication; the testing of each other’s boundaries; the concessions, large and small, that so many people make to alleviate their loneliness or just get laid.
Tucked within her solitary, late-night hours, Edie paints, struggling to capture her face in a self-portrait; she’s never quite considered herself an artist, but it’s telling that the sexiest line in the book comes not during any interaction with Eric, but in her description of the publishing house’s art department: “Where there are silky sheaves of eighteen-by-twenty-four and the printers are sighing in self-generated heat, churning out deep blacks and liquid blues like clockwork, panels as clear as water, so saturated that if you touch it fresh you can feel the wet.” One of the book’s greatest strengths is its heady evocation of the senses—the pleasure and pain that comes with having a body. The hot sun both “nuking all the garbage in Manhattan” and making a man’s fingers stick to the back of Edie’s neck.
When Edie is fired from her job and takes a gig as a bike courier to stay afloat, peddling Juul pods and lobster bisque all over Brooklyn in the swampy heat, it seems like Luster may be settling into a series of misadventures, akin to a novel like Halle Butler’s The New Me. Soon enough, though, Edie’s misfortunes align: Just as she’s getting kicked out of her roach-infested apartment, she makes a delivery to Eric’s wife, who not so much as invites her as tells her to stay with them in New Jersey. The offer from the no-nonsense Rebecca, whose “generosity comes with an asterisk,” isn’t birthed solely from altruism, of course, or even pure jealousy. Two years ago, the Walkers adopted Akila, an adolescent Black girl, who they worry about because she has no friends. That Edie could help is never asked outright, but the assumption is there all the same.
While some of Luster’s plot moves can come across as convenient or even obligatory, Leilani settles comfortably into any given scenario. Out in the Walkers’ Maplewood subdivision, where an old white woman eyes Edie from between the slats of her blinds, the most tender parts of the narrator’s past and present are activated. Both of Edie’s parents are dead, and they were each absent in their own ways while alive; her mother dealt and was addicted to drugs, while her womanizing father often made himself scarce. In Rebecca, Edie finds a nebulous, shifting mix of a parent, a friend, a rival. Akila is at once a daughter, a sister, and an avatar for Edie herself, as she recognizes in her the awkward pain and loneliness that comes from being the sole Black girl among a crowd of white people.
“It occurs to me I’ve been in Jersey too long,” Edie thinks late in the novel. She’s right, of course, and in the larger scheme of her life, Essex County may very well register as a blip. But the archetype Leilani has chosen suits her debut well—the protagonist who must go away in order to come back—if only because she takes full advantage of the form, using its bluntest markers as occasions to deepen an already candid, vulnerable character. That the language is often excellent doesn’t hurt either. Luster is lean and focused, yet dense with reference and detail, the lush prose heightening its tangible specificity. Leilani also makes smart use of the well-placed long sentence, the catharsis that can arrive when something comes to an end.
Author photo: Nina Subin