Luster

By Raven Leilani, published 2020

Photo by Emel Yasar Photography.

Edie is a twenty-something woman trying to survive in New York without any support network. She phones it in at her job, sleeps around the office, and recently met Eric through a dating app. He’s in an open marriage, and Edie is impressionable enough to be impressed by him because he seems to be a grown man.

Edie wants to be an artist, but she doesn’t believe she’s good enough, and neither do the people who hire artists. Or is it the other way around? And when she falls on even worse times, Eric’s wife, Rebecca, takes her in. This is the beginning of Edie’s chance at an epiphany, if only she can vanquish the persistent, inherited belief that she isn’t good enough.

I won’t waste any more on explaining the plot. I think I counted Edie’s name twice in the entire text, and that demonstrates the level of importance she places on herself in her own story. At the start of the novel, she seems to be just another young woman pulling her life together in the big city, and that is how she would like it to be. But the truth is, her struggles are far more difficult than most others, and we learn over the course of the novel through her spare, unflinching narration that she is utterly alone in the world. The fact that Edie is Black and Eric and his wife are white add a new layer of complication to the story, especially as their adopted daughter Akila is also Black and nearly as lonely as Edie.

The writing is stunning: clean and cold, sometimes painful to read. When Edie doesn’t get a job in the art department, she thinks: “I mean, with one half degree of difference, everything I want could be mine. I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad. It is almost. The difference between being there when it happens and stepping out just int time to see it on the news.” While she shares her hardships, she does so in such a detached way that it is impossible not to feel pain on her behalf.

But she’s also funny: “…as he talks, I hold my breath. I know we are in agreement on the most general, least controversial ideological points — women are people, racism is bad, Florida will be underwater in fifty years — but there is still ample time for him to bring up how much he enjoyed Atlas Shrugged.

The insights Edie achieves in her time with Eric and Rebecca, and their daughter, are nothing short of spectacular. I only wish I had read this book when I was twenty — not that I would have been smart enough to heed its lessons. While the story itself seems specific and unique — to live with and sort-of befriend Eric’s wife and daughter — it is for everywoman. It is a story about a woman finding her power, independence, and confidence, and recognizing that a man with a job is truly the lowest of expectations. Five stars.

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