Edie is a young Black artist living a precarious existence in New York City's gig economy when she takes a white lover in an open marriage, eventually moving in with him and his wife in the New Jersey suburbs, where she finds herself not only in a tense relationship with the couple but also becoming an unwitting mentor to their adopted Black daughter Akila.
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.'
I am tired of cynical books about intelligent but self-destructive young women who try to make their lives in New York City and then end up getting, both literally and figuratively, screwed. Raven Leilani’s debut novel begins in such a fashion. True, it is, for a change, narrated by a young Black woman – but there is also a white saviour at its centre, so that novelty is swiftly cancelled out ... the novel’s pivot to earnestness doesn’t come at the cost of emotional integrity, and even in her newfound capacity for self-love, Edie never loses sight of the pain. Brilliant in terms of voice, Luster is equally strong on plot and structure. In her leavening of cynicism with hope, Raven Leilani writes as if she were three books wise, at least. I closed Luster feeling a little more cynical than when I’d opened it – but I loved it nonetheless.