It may occur to the reader of Luster that the title has a double meaning. “A soft glow” is the dictionary definition of luster, and given that the protagonist, Edie, is an artist, that reference makes sense. But if we are to read the title as “lust-er,” as in one who lusts, that interpretation makes sense, too. Luster is a gritty novel about appetites—for sex, companionship, attention, money—and what happens when they are sated.
Luster is narrated by Edie, a 23-year-old Black woman in Brooklyn with a crappy job and crappier apartment. She begins dating Eric, an older white man she meets online who is in an open marriage. Then Edie is fired from her job for inappropriate sexual behavior and subsequently evicted from her apartment. Eric’s wife, Rebecca, invites Edie to stay in their suburban New Jersey home until she gets back on her feet.
Despite the open relationship that brought Eric and Edie together, this is not a particularly sexual novel. The beginning is front-loaded with intimate scenes, including some violence that may or may not be consensual BDSM. But the remainder of the book focuses on the wary relationship between Edie and Rebecca, as well as Rebecca’s adopted Black daughter, Akila. It might come as a relief to Edie that this happy suburban family whose home she has stumbled into is, actually, anything but happy. Or it might just be a disappointment.
Some readers will view Edie as an unlikable narrator who makes destructive choices. Others will read her as lost and complicated, struggling to stay afloat in a racist and sexist world. Either way, Edie is deftly written as a young woman saddled with generational trauma and suffering from the rootlessness of an addict’s child.
Leilani’s writing is cerebral and raw, and this debut novel will establish her as a powerful new voice. There are no easy answers or resolutions in Luster, and no one comes out looking good. But the author has proven herself to be a keen social observer—especially about the truths that some people don’t want to see.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Raven Leilani discusses the want and rage of her female characters in Luster.