At the beginning of 2020, I set a goal to read 30 books this year. I've been keeping track of my progress and adding new titles I want to check out in the Goodreads app. Do you use it?
It was through Goodreads that I discovered Luster by Raven Leilani.
This is her debut novel and it has received high praise. Alexandra Schwartz at The New Yorker wrote, "She is a sharp phrasemaker—we get 'the high-fructose sun' of an amusement park, and an older co-worker’s 'bleached, Warholian cool'—and she 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."
Luster is the story of Edie, a young, black woman in New York City bouncing between entry level jobs, whose true passion is painting. She's living paycheck-to-paycheck when she meets Eric on a dating site. He's older, married and lives in the suburbs of New Jersey.
When Edie loses her job, Eric's wife Rebecca invites her to live with them while she gets back on her feet. Eric is mostly away at a conference, leaving Edie alone with Rebecca and their adopted daughter Akila. On page 121, Edie describes moving through the house, "I creep around the house and try to be racially neutral. I avoid her as best as I can, though I hear her all around the house: doing dishes, Pilates, and some involved activity with a power drill. In my effort to be sensitive to where she is, I find that she is an extremely noisy person. I can't say whether this is for my benefit, but even on the other side of the house the noise feels indirectly violent, her predilection for walking on her heels and shouting yes! to her Insanity DVD well within the realm of plausible deniability, but intimidating nonetheless."
What makes the book so gripping is the strangeness of the situation. Edie had only been out with Eric a few times when she accidentally met Rebecca and later received this invitation to move in with them. It seems unfathomable that a woman whose husband wanted to date outside the marriage would invite one of those women into their home.
Though Eric is what brings the two women into each other's orbit, the book mostly centers around how Edie tries to co-exist alongside Rebecca, and the odd and sometimes nurturing ways Rebecca reaches out.
There's also an interesting side story about Edie's relationship with Akila, Eric and Rebecca's daughter, who is also black. Edie helps Akila find the perfect routine to care for her hair, embraces her love of video games, and even dresses up to join her at Comic-Con.
Leilani's writing is raw and powerful. She doesn't shy away from things that are uncomfortable. Rather, she exposes them for what they are - no matter the ugliness.
I really enjoyed this piece about her in The New York Times. It talks about her own relationship to painting and where her experience and her character's overlap. You can see photos of her artwork in the article, also here and here on Twitter.
I found myself addicted to this book. It's 227 pages and I moved through it very quickly, even choosing to read it instead of watching TV (a big deal!). If you're looking for a new fiction book, add Luster to your list.
*Image courtesy of Entertainment Weekly.