Raven Leilani’s first novel reads like summer: sentences like ice that crackle or melt into a languorous drip; plot suddenly, wildly flying forward like a bike down a hill ... Leilani has a ruthless knack for the somatic, rendering flesh on paper as alluring and unidealized as it is right next to you ... Strangely, Leilani’s heightened rendering of the tangle that can be one’s early 20s...is what actually lends the novel its acidic verisimilitude ... The relationship between Edie and Rebecca is a living thing with its own heartbeat, and it is here that Leilani is at her most nimble, her writing sinewy and sharp ... it is Edie’s hunger for recognition—more than her desire for self-improvement or the humiliation of heterosexuality or her attempts to wrestle her life into something worth the pain—that colors the novel.
... vibrant, spiky ... Leilani is such a funny writer that the despair of Edie’s predicament isn’t clear until she’s fully immersed in it ... But Leilani is a master of darker, more deadpan humor ... As the situation destabilizes, growing uncomfortably thick with noblesse oblige, the metaphors get sharper ... distinguished by its focus on race, which raises the stakes for the story. The climax emphasizes that for all of her wit and flexibility, Edie is ultimately a Black woman in a white neighborhood. She’s treated as an assistant, then an interloper and finally an invader ... But Leilani is also a major new talent because her command of style and characterization is so strong. Tucked within the story of her life with Eric’s family are scraps of Edie’s own life, which emerge as she becomes more aware of her third-class treatment and her capacity to escape it. In that regard, Luster isn’t just a sardonic book, but a powerful one about emotional transformation. Edie shrewdly learns how to find strength in her jadedness, not just resignation. She becomes wise at 'parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head.'
Luster, New York writer Raven Leilani’s debut novel, grapples with loneliness in a way that is socially relevant, raw, vulnerable—and darkly funny ... Leilani...has got an ear for a satisfyingly descriptive phrase, and the sharp, witty, dark humour drives the narrative. Luster is, though, very plot-driven and at times moves a little too quickly. Still, Luster is a much-needed examination of the intersection of Blackness, class, sexuality and power. The characters are well-drawn and easy to relate to, each with their own take on loneliness: a lack of familial love; a lack of love within a marriage; the lack of others who can relate to your experience.
Leilani has a blistering talent for describing a moment while refusing to name its undercurrents. What begins as an erotic novel about Eric turns into the story of Edie’s fascination with Rebecca ... Luster is also an interesting meditation on social ethics since the conundrum Akila poses to Edie is ultimately a moral one ... Edie carefully picks her way through the fragmentary remains of the American nuclear family, a broken and jagged old ruin, to try to find what still matters. Luster seems like the first crashing of a new wave of fiction defined by a world where all the traditional vocabularies for morality have gone defunct. That makes Luster an existentialist novel, like The Stranger, and a relative to literary modernism. But it isn’t, crucially, a nihilistic novel ... Leilani forces her protagonist to face up to the fact that being a person involves certain ethical obligations to other people, though she leaves Edie grasping for the words to describe them.
Raven Leilani’s long-form debut, and that newness sometimes shows; after a wildly beguiling start, the novel telescopes inward, often forsaking narrative momentum for mood and color. Sentence by sentence, though, she’s also a phenomenal writer, her dense, dazzling paragraphs shot through with self-effacing wit and psychological insight ... By almost any metric, Edie is a mess: damaged, adrift, a maestro of self-sabotage. You want to shake her sometimes, or just wrap her in a warm blanket and tell her to go home. But Leilani also makes her pain specific and real — not as a symbol or statistic, but as a young woman in the world, trying hard to solve the mystery of herself.
... a smart and bold exploration of self-worth and self-appreciation wriggled from a love triangle gone strange and a sense of urgency to understand the world around us. This short book is both sexy and sad, angry but funny, with impressive literary prose that is blunt and mischievous, luring you with little intention to let go. In Luster, there are vital essences buried deep within the core, more visible as you peel back the droves of sticky layers. And once the characters and their world are slowly revealed, we find there is very little that’s different from our own ... Leilani shifts from past to present with assertiveness, giving us valid insight to Edie’s childhood and her relationships with men at an early age. What’s interesting about Edie is her self-awareness ... Leilani has given us a novel of our times with prevalent topics circling social movements of Me Too and Black Lives Matter ... This book paints an accurate portrait of society’s many weaknesses while also spotlights potential hope. In a world where we’re actively searching for that one great muse, often times we can find it staring back at us in the mirror.
... a book that has been so feverishly praised for its boldness, humor and sexual frankness that I was a little crushed to find instead a perfectly agreeable if uneven first novel—brisk and pleasantly pulpy, hobbled occasionally by some seriously mangled prose and pat psychology ... Sex has a way of getting all the attention; in this case, it obscures that, page by page, this is less a story about coupling than it is one about work. The spikiest, funniest scenes send up corporate life, with all its feints at inclusion and its complacent racism ... A blurry feeling settled over me as I kept encountering rhyming descriptions and plot points. Edie’s moments of connection with women take identical forms. She shares a cigarette with each of them, and cares for their hair, or tries to ... The reader, though, perhaps sees Edie too clearly. Narrative causality flows a little too neatly, the back story filters in to explain Edie as a culmination of her upbringing ... It’s strange, perhaps, to crave more privacy for a fictional character, but I wanted it for Edie. I wanted more mystery, for her to resist being so neatly summed up. In a word she might use, I wanted agency for her, but this story is interested in inheritance, hence those echoes and doublings ... Your enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for run-on sentences that strain painfully for profundity, for odd, often indecipherable metaphors ... The dialogue is flat, mostly expository with an interesting repetition. The characters frame their impatience with Edie—her transgressions, her need—as a generational divide, prefiguring, perhaps, how this book might be read. Novels by young writers tend to attract a strange sort of attention—more anthropological than literary.
... strikingly observed ... What ensues over the next 200-plus pages is indeed a wild ride: an irreverent intergenerational tale of race and class that’s blisteringly smart and fan-yourself sexy ... Leilani paints a complex, gloriously messy portrait of three people pushing boundaries.
... relevant, raw, vulnerable—and darkly funny ... [Leilani] has got an ear for a satisfyingly descriptive phrase, and the sharp, witty, dark humour drives the narrative. Luster is, though, very plot-driven and at times moves a little too quickly ... Luster is a much-needed examination of the intersection of Blackness, class, sexuality and power. The characters are well-drawn and easy to relate to, each with their own take on loneliness ... There aren’t many books that discuss the nuances of love and loneliness a young woman of colour faces — and that can often make a person feel that much more alone.
... sometimes a book comes along that makes me cringe for all the right reasons. Raven Leilani's Luster belongs to this select group ... A short review of this novel could easily be a laundry list of the topics it tackles, half a dozen quotes, and a single sentence: 'Read this now' ... an exotic hybrid — a depressing intergenerational love story with a heart of noir wrapped in gallows humor, some sexy scenes, and a look at race in this country that takes into account differences of age and class. It is also incredibly bleak, and so honest it will make you squirm ... Leilani understands ennui well, and Edie is full of it ... Despite all the depressing stuff here, Luster is brilliant. Leilani writes as if she's stabbing the keyboard with scalpels made of class resentment and memories of racism and misogyny ... Mentioning discussions of race or misogyny often makes readers frown. Don't fret — Luster isn't a preachy novel. In fact, it is often the opposite; a hilarious and kinky story about what it's like to be young right now. However, it is also a novel that regularly — and fiercely — stops, looks at you, and says 'Oh, by the way, this happens and it's beyond messed up' in a way that catches you by surprise and makes you angry at whatever it's just pointed out ... smashes together capitalism, sex, loss, and trauma and constructs something new with the pieces, using pitch-black humor as glue. That this Frankenstein's monster of genres and topics works so well is a testament to Leilani's talent. That it all happens in a debut novel makes it even more impressive. Edie is a unique character, a young Black woman full of dissatisfaction who constantly engages in self-destructive behavior. She is flawed and bright, funny and broken, depressed and horny. Edie is unforgettable, and so is Luster, a novel that shines with a distinctive darkness. Yes, the world is burning and maybe you feel like a depressing novel is the last thing you need, but there is pleasure at the core of every cringe Leilani will force on you.
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 ... One of the book’s greatest strengths is its heady evocation of the senses—the pleasure and pain that comes with having a body ... While some of Luster’s plot moves can come across as convenient or even obligatory, Leilani settles comfortably into any given scenario ... 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.
Leilani has an absurdist streak; the exchanges between Edie and her lovers often make art seem twee or tired, instead of something often used against Edie by men who know how to get what they want ... Leilani captures the desperation and precariousness of her life, and the sickening drop of stepping off a high wire without a net ... Leilani has written a book of surfaces, beheld as a painter approaches a subject. Long stretches of smoldering silence fraught with hidden meaning characterize the novel ... Luster evokes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, not necessarily for Ellison’s political meanings, but for the state of going unobserved, unknown in a society ... Leilani captures the consumerist nihilism of Edie’s world by combining the sacred and profane on the same plane, a cubist flattening ... The lack of communication and conversation between characters can make some sections of the book feel as inert as the corpses upon Rebecca’s slab, awaiting excavation. But perhaps that’s the point ... In Luster, Leilani does what Edie cannot. She captures the force of desire in a portrait from which you cannot look away.
[Leilani] loves catching her reader off guard by tweaking a sentence midway through, switching up speeds, like a pitcher, so that a passage that begins modestly suddenly gathers momentum, shooting forward in long, arcing phrases that stay improbably in flight ... There’s a 'look what I can do' joy in Leilani’s prose that delights in the rapture it describes, capped, in that surrender to 'yes,' by a nod to Molly Bloom, who knows a thing or two herself about the erotics of a breathless run-on ... It’s daring of Leilani to launch such a hilarious salvo on the publishing industry from within, and her timing turns out to be spot on ... a highly pleasurable interrogation of pleasure ... Leilani thrives in this hyperconscious register; this is the sincere comedy of a powerfully observant mind spinning its gears as thought rushes far ahead of action ... Leilani, a commendably patient novelist, comfortably dwells in such inscrutability. She sometimes falters when she tries to be overly legible, or pushes her vivid sensibility a measure too far ... Although people do work at morgues, and clowns must come from somewhere, these garish touches, in a novel already highly attuned to the everyday surreal, lack the subtle weight that makes invented things seem true. Rebecca’s job, in particular, functions as unneeded shorthand for parsing her character, and Leilani does something similar with Edie’s penchant for pain ... too clear a tethering line is drawn from Edie’s sorrowful childhood to the masochistic streak that emerges in her relationship with Eric ... In a sense, such stumbles are the flip side of the novel’s successes; both stem from Leilani’s hunger to pack so much of what she knows about the world into one deceptively narrow drama.
Luster is a crackling debut about sex, art and the inescapable workings of race ... just when one fears that Luster might sink into endless woeful lusting, the book slyly pivots ... As a Black writer, Leilani is of course well-versed in the inescapable workings of race. Luster offers several keen moments on the theme ... Edie addresses us in a funny, shrewd narrative voice that precisely describes the wide-ranging contours of her life.
There are no perfect Black women in Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, and that is by design ... Through Edie, her 23-year-old protagonist, Leilani tries to liberate the Black woman figure’s range of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings from an inherent virtuousness or exceptionalism. This choice challenges readers to recognize Edie’s agency and see her as a young Black woman in progress ... Edie’s matter-of-fact confessions, underscored by Leilani’s caustic prose, are on-brand for Millennial literature of the past few years ... The most interesting moments in Luster are those between Edie and other Black women and girls, especially Akila, because they subvert expectations of what Black women should mean to one another.
Luster is a gritty novel about appetites—for sex, companionship, attention, money—and what happens when they are sated ... 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.
... the extent to which you like this novel, maybe the extent to which you fall for the hype, will largely depend on your willingness to agree when the author tells you that two plus two is five ... one of many such decidedly odd narrative decisions Leilani makes in the course of the book ... This is not slice-of-life; this is Slutty Mistress of Narnia ... Is this kind of stuff slyly profound? Or is it just another example of the chic-progressive racism that’s become blandly accepted among the literati in the 21st century? Certainly a white-skinned author who wrote a paragraph like that about black characters would be social-media exiled to Ultima Thule for the rest of time, but Leilani is far more likely to be cheered for real-world tell-it-like-it-is verisimilitude by the same hipsters out in Willamsburg who've uncomplainingly swallowed all the science fiction that crops up elsewhere in the book ... There is ample intelligence in Luster, but it's unfocused. There's plenty of biting social commentary, but it's scatterbrained and almost wincingly hypocritical. There's some very sharp writing, but it's buried in Twitter posturing and self-pitying ennui. In other words, it's Sally Rooney 2.0. So maybe Leilani's characters aren't the only ones who know how to play the game.
... nothing if not an ambitious work ... Leilani manages to write of Edie’s desire and experience of sex with a clarity and conciseness that is rare in fiction ... Edie lends her voice to one of the defining refrains of the past seven years of black women’s writing. The favorite topic—creating a taxonomy of white people and white behaviors and microaggressions ... Edie is a confounding character. And this, too, makes her a challenging flaneur ... Yet this hyperawareness does not lead to action or change on Edie’s part. On the contrary, it seems to stun her into a kind of paralysis ... In that the novel begins to falter, as Edie’s self-loathing and disgust mixed with longing toward her adopted family occurs again and again, the same crescendo and intensity of waves for the reader. I do not think it is in Leilani’s desire, as a writer, to have her heroine reach an emotional epiphany ... Edie and the rhythms of this novel make so much more sense when you understand them as the pace of a dogged, incessant traveler, watching the worlds she passes through and making rude notes about them, simply to assert the uncomfortable truth that she was there at all.
... blistering ... Leilani establishes a tense dynamic that simmers throughout ... It’s all about attention—why we crave it and what forms it takes. Leilani carefully pulls the strings of Edie, Rebecca, Eric and Akila, revealing how lonely they all are ... The result plays out through moments unsettling and surreal, carried by the breathless voice of a woman trying to find direction.
Leilani’s radiant debut belongs to its brilliant, fully formed narrator. Old soul Edie has an otherworldly way of seeing the world and reflecting it back to readers, peppering experiences of past and current despair with acceptance and humor but never sacrificing depth, of which her story has miles. A must for seekers of strongly narrated, original fiction.
... a moving examination of a young black woman’s economic desperation and her relationship to violence ... Edie’s ability to navigate the complicated relationships with the Walkers exhibits Leilani’s mastery of nuance, and the narration is perceptive, funny, and emotionally charged. Edie’s frank, self-possessed voice will keep a firm grip on readers all the way to the bitter end.
... electric ... Leilani’s characters act in ways that often defy explanation, and that is part of what makes them so alive and so mesmerizing: Whose behavior, in real life, can be reduced to simple cause and effect? Sharp, strange, propellant—and a whole lot of fun.