Luster by Raven Leilani has been framed as a ‘millennial novel’, but it is has received a lot of hype this year. Zadie Smith and Candice Carty-Williams have both praised Leilani’s debut novel, and their stamps of approval have been highlighted on the front cover of the text. The author endorsements demonstrate the instant literary success of Leilani’s novel.
The novel is set in New York, and it is narrated from the perspective of Edie, who performs the role of narrator and central protagonist. Luster follows Edie as she navigates life, modern love, and unemployment. Leilani’s protagonist is a young Black woman, and her story offers sharp insights into a fictional version of pre-pandemic New York.
Modern love and Luster
Edie delves into the world of online dating and meets an older married man named Eric. The relationship between Eric and Edie ebbs and flows throughout the novel. The terms of their dates and sex life are controlled by Eric’s wife, who implements the boundaries around their open relationship.
Leilani’s protagonist loses her job at a publishing firm following a disciplinary meeting. Consequently, she enters financial hardship and struggles to pay her steep rent rates in New York. In order to pay the bills Edie starts to work as a delivery driver. The work involves dropping off bowls of ramen to boujee New York post codes.
Luster navigates flexible employment and the gig economy. Edie is unable to financially support herself despite the grind she puts in with her Deliveroo-style job. As a result, Leilani’s protagonist is placed in a vulnerable position with limited options. Edie’s precarious situation leaves her homeless, so she turns up at Eric’s family house to seek accommodation.
Rebecca (Eric’s wife) is hospitable and lets Edie stay in the house temporarily. The novel focuses on Edie and Rebecca’s strained relationship. The two women are pitched in competition with each other. However, they also share moments of friendship which is an aspect of the novel that I really rated.
‘I relished denying the call’
The affair between Edie and Eric is a bit of a cliche. For this reason, the relationship between Edie and Rebecca is far more striking in comparison. The older man falls for the younger girl but still actively chooses to remain committed to his wife. The romance between Edie and Eric is dull, and I found myself skimming the sections that covered it. The antagonism between the two women is pronounced at the beginning of the novel. Edie confides that, “I relished denying the call” from Rebecca on Eric’s phone. However, the hostility dissipates.
Eric and Rebecca have an adopted child named Akila. Akila, like Edie, is Black. However, the young girl has grown up in a predominantly white household and neighbourhood. Edie and Akila develop a close relationship during the course of the novel.
Leilani’s protagonist plays a big sister role to Akila. In particular, Edie shows helps her to care for and condition her hair. Akila chemically burns her scalp when she attempts to relax her hair, but Edie shows her how to heal the damage.
‘They were dying inside their own bodies, and now all these dead components are my inheritance’
Edie becomes inserted into Eric’s family dynamic. Leilani’s protagonist continually reflects on her own upbringing during her stay at the house. In particular, Edie agonises over her relationship with her mother. She reflects on the matriarchs in her family, and observes that, “they were dying inside their own bodies, and now all these dead components are my inheritance”.
The family is the only social structure that Leilani’s protagonist navigates in the novel beside the workplace. As a result, I felt that there was an isolated or limited development of character. Edie never discusses friendship in the course of the novel and her own family has deceased.
However, Edie’s isolation is reflective of a patriarchal and capitalist society which sees individuals only in relation to their family life and their work. To a certain degree, Leilani’s novel shows how systems alienate individuals and create social exclusion.
Luster is a bold debut novel which offers a powerful insight into one woman’s precarious relationships and employment. Leilani has crafted an elegant story which is both sharp and sweet in equal measure.