'Luster' Is Messy, Beautiful, and Complicated

Our readers said Raven Leilani's sentences are poetry.

(Image credit: Design By Morgan McMullen)

Ask anybody who has read Raven Leilani's debut novel, Luster, and they'll tell you that the book is impossible to describe. Impossible not in a bad way—impossible in a messy, complicated, emotional way that one can only understand after the book is finished. The #ReadWithMC community agreed that they initially thought Luster would center on Edie, a young Black artist, and her relationship with Eric, an older white digital archivist, but it's so much more than that. In fact, most of the book focuses on the relationship between Edie and Eric's wife, Rebecca, with each sentence precisely delving into what it means to be young and lonely and beautiful and Black.

While this book does not come with a fairytale ending—it isn't even remotely happy at all, if we're being honest—it's certainly one that will make you think: about life, about the characters, about yourself. Readers found that they can relate to Edie's struggles throughout the novel, whether it's coming to terms with their sexual identity, dealing with racial trauma, or grappling with death. There's more, but we won't spoil anything for you.

If you're finding yourself in the pandemic feels, order Luster (it lives up to the hype!)and see exactly what #ReadWithMC loved about the novel, below.

"I have finally, finally read Luster, a debut novel that I was extremely excited about, and can now confirm that you should read it too.

Phew, Leilani can write. These sentences are sharp and pointed. You can tell that everything she writes has been considered. I watched an event hosted by Harvard Bookstore where Leilani was in conversation with Brit Bennett to discuss Luster. Leilani talked about how she likes to write at the sentence level and kind of subvert expectations, and I think she definitely achieves that in this book.

Edie’s struggles reminded me of my own experiences of being young and broke in NYC. I love novels set in NYC because I love seeing this city I call home through other people’s eyes. There’s a dark humor in this book that provides small pockets of escape from the sadness and loneliness of Edie’s life.

There’s so much packed into this short novel. There's a lot of talk about the body and both the grotesqueness and beauty of it. Edie is an artist, and so is Leilani, and I love the way she wrote about art: the struggle of having something inside that you want to express, but not being able to capture it adequately in your art.

Leilani writes about being young and trying to find your calling, about surviving in this city that chews people up and spits them out, about navigating the world as a young Black woman. The ending really gripped me as well. As I was reading the last 20 pages or so, I felt my insides squeeze painfully with understanding. Luster is such a memorable debut and I can’t wait to see what Leilani writes next." —@scsreads

"I have just finished this book: Luster by @raven_leilani. It is so far removed from the usual genre I choose, but I fell in love with Edie for all her lust, flaws, and messiness instantly.

For me, this felt like a fast-paced book with Edie always teetering on the edge, never feeling loved, never feeling secure or as if she belongs. It's a very raw, spirited, smart, witty, and sad novel, with great use of prose. Looking at race, class, gender, and sexuality in a caustic and brutal way. A must read book of 2020." —@hev_m

"Run-on sentences, paragraphs extending over pages, unfiltered raw thoughts—Luster is written in a stream of consciousness style that you lose yourself in, almost flowing like a poem. This book is uncomfortable at one point and sparkingly humorous the next. It's introspective yet glosses over aspects that I, if I was the main character, would have wanted to explore. After reading a section, I would often find myself sitting back and taking a moment to think.

Twenty-something Edie is a struggling young Black woman in New York City who finds herself participating in an open marriage and then suddenly living in the couple's suburban New Jersey home after becoming unemployed. Oh, and Edie may be the only Black woman the couple's adopted Black adolescent daughter knows.

Sex is present but is an undercurrent, not the driving force I expected it to be when learning the plot involved an open marriage. Luster is about being lost, and struggling to find yourself in a world where you don't squarely fit. Racial themes are present as well, because that just comes with being a Black person in America.

They say people come into your life for a reason, and in Luster, all parties involved clearly need each other—if only for a moment." —@bohobooksnbrews

"Luster was AMAZING—I’m typically a slow reader, but I couldn’t put it down. I finished reading it in a couple days." —@carlylaudani

"I seriously want to recommend Luster to everyone. It's hard to say that I loved this book, or even that I enjoyed it. But this book made me feel, and isn't that all that us readers are striving for when we dive between the pages?

Luster is a story about survival. What it means to survive as a young Black woman in NYC. What it means to survive when you hold intergenerational trauma, resilience, and survival in your very bones. It's also a story about finding yourself. The words 'coming-of-age novel' are too bland, too blase, too white for what Edie's experience is in Luster. This book is gritty. It is sarcastic. The banter and internal monologue are utterly hilarious. But Luster is also extremely sad, exhausting, and disheartening the way that racism is extremely sad, exhausting, and disheartening.

'There is no fluffy alternative word for what I am trying to convey, no way to effectively explain violations that are not overt. It is a rhetorical hellscape. A casual reduction so frequent it is mundane. Almost too mundane for the deployment of the R work, as with a certain sect of Good White Person the accusation overshadows the act.'

Go buy this book. Get it from the library. Listen to it. Whatever your medium, pick up this book and meet Edie." —@literaryintersections

"Luster was a fantastically written debut novel. It was juicy! From the first chapter I was shook with the whole situation of dating a married man who was in an open relationship. The relationship got increasingly more complicated as the novel progressed with multiple layers of loneliness intertwined. I enjoyed her navigating of race, sexual relationships, and finding your passion in life. Great choice to add to your TBR." —@readrelaxandunwine

"First and foremost this review is WAY overdue. Secondly, not enough people are talking about this book!!!

I naturally gravitate towards novels about young Black women, especially ones that honestly depict the complexities we face. Luster follows the story of twenty-something Edie, who is having a rough go of things. She’s recently unemployed, homeless, is in DEEP with Eric (a man whose wife has agreed to an open marriage, but on her terms) and is trying to believe in her art again. I loved this book for many reasons, but I think Leilani’s exploration of what it means to be young right now is what stuck with me the most.

Recently, I’ve been talking to various friends about how no one really tells you about your twenties being a difficult life stage to navigate. Not to say it can’t be exciting or fun, but it’s a time filled with significant self-reflection, growth (or lack there of), and tough lessons, and I think this novel captures that sentiment beautifully. Raven Leilani gives us an impressive debut with sharp and unflinching writing, making it an enthralling read you should definitely pick up." —@booked__and_busy

"Luster: the glow of light from within, an inner beauty (Merriam-Webster).

In the tradition of recent books such as Writers & Lovers by Lily King and Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, Raven Leilani’s debut novel Luster joins the ranks of stories featuring a young woman trying to pursue an artistic lifestyle and find meaning all while struggling with poverty and making horrible choices centered around men.

Edie is a Black woman who works in publishing and has a crappy apartment in Bushwick populated by mice and roaches, which she shares with an indifferent roommate. She’s an artist, but has been stalled in creating her art for several years. She gets in trouble for using her work computer inappropriately and has messy sexual hookups.

She meets Eric online. He’s a married man in an open marriage and Edie becomes entangled with him. Somehow Eric’s wife, Rebecca, decides to let Edie live with them when she inevitably loses her job. Edie takes up residence in the guest room and becomes a 'trusty spirit guide' to Akila, their Black daughter, all while navigating a relationship with Eric within the household.

The novel reads almost like stream of consciousness journal entries, as we see the world primarily through Edie’s lens and have little dialogue and interaction with the other characters independently. It’s clear that Edie is in pain, both emotionally and physically, and Edie gives voice to it in a raw and beautiful way with sharp, relentless commentary that is at times unsettling and disturbing, but I think that’s the point. Honestly, as the story unfolds, I am much more troubled by the exploitative way that both Eric and Rebecca interact with Edie—and Eric’s overt violence—than I am by anything else.

The novel acknowledges the violence of the world we—and Edie—inhabit. There are plenty of trigger warnings: racism, police brutality, gun violence, physical abuse, abortion, miscarriage, drug addiction, etc. Edie is bearing witness to these injustices and surviving. One can’t help but root for her and hope the world benefits from her art and her 'luster.' Raven Leilani emerges as a bold new voice in fiction." —@suzylew_bookreview

"'Of course, the context of my childhood—the boy bands, the Lunchables, the impeachment of Bill Clinton—only emphasizes our generational gap.'

This book was so unexpected! It's sharp, uncomfortable, and unsettling. I can't say I enjoyed the ride, but it was such a fresh experience of reading. It's brutally honest and so smart in its writing—what a stellar debut! It packs a punch in a slim volume—there's not many wasted passages in this book. It's a strong character study and one that makes me glad I'm past the 20s phase of my life. Can't wait to read more by Raven Leilani in the future!" —@readtotheend

"Spending her days in a roach-infested apartment in Bushwick, Edie is apathetic to life after only 23 years. Understimulated and underpaided by her job at a children's imprint, she leans into promiscuous—and destructive—encounters to pass the time. She knows her life could be different, but she's been conditioned to live in this state of indifferent paralysis.

Edie begins an affair with a married man, Eric, 23 years her senior with his wife's knowing consent. And if this book was simply about the turbulent relationship with this mediocre man, I'd say it wasn't worth the hype. Luckily, Leilani's MC becomes involved in the daily lives of Eric's wife, Rebecca, and their adoptive daughter, Akila, and it's in these relationships that this book truly delivers.

Tackling everything from overt racism and excessive police force to poverty, abuse, family dynamics, suicidal ideation, and depression, this compressed chronicle of Edie's life was near impossible to put down. I devoured Leilani's unflinching prose in a mere two-sittings, and while I know this book won't work for everyone, I'm certain it will spark a conversation or two.

This book is messy, chaotic, intelligent, and real. Its modern setting and story felt like nothing and everything all at the same time. I wish I had read it slower because I'm certain there was poetry lost in my speed reading." —@nerdnarration

"This book is a work of art; Leilani’s prose poetry. She masterfully weaves depth and matter out of vivid, precise, incessant [often darkly funny] observations of the minutiae of her characters’ lives; their mannerisms and quiet habits; their tenuous, uncomfortable moments.

I went into Luster expecting gorgeous writing {which Leilani absolutely delivers} and also to feel uncomfortable reading it {which I did}, so in certain ways, this book delivered what I expected. The direction of the plot and the character development, however, took me a little by surprise. I anticipated to see more from the romantic/sexual plot line that we’re thrown into in the book’s first pages, but ultimately found Luster to center less around that relationship, and more around these two very different women, alone-together—distinct, but moving in proximity to one another in a shared household; orbiting on paths that come close but never quite connect; each searching for meaning and feeling in their respective lives. Womanhood, and perhaps also motherhood, in certain ways, were the center of this book for me, wrapped up in struggle and longing. Undercurrents of race and culture run through the book as well—pervasive in the way they pervade life—and Leilani writes exquisitely around them, so that they are constant and vivid without the book ever being 'about' them directly.

If this review feels vague and abstract, it’s because there is an ineffable quality about Luster that makes it hard to pin down. It is not a story you read, so much as an experience you soak in gradually—viscerally. This is definitely a book I feel I’ll need to process at length, and hopefully also discuss with fellow readers." —@em_jacobs_reads

"I devoured Luster by Raven Leilani in two sittings—I loved it! It had everything I love—expertly-crafted characters, a unique narration style, and a character-driven story. Check. Check. Check.

The characters were so well-executed and I was invested in Edie from the first page. The prose...I loved the beautiful and heart-wrenching prose and for this to be a debut...wow. This is not a happy, fairytale ending type of novel. It is a morose, but tender novel with some dark wit included. Luster hit me in the feels with how Edie deals with racism from microagressions to police brutality. If you enjoy novels with themes like the psychology of sexuality, coming of age, and challenging modern relationships, you’ll enjoy Luster." —@mad.reads.books

"This book was so! Anticipated! I was tracking the package like a madwoman. Once it landed on that doorstep, I devoured it.

You know those people that the universe just does not agree with? Like their specific concoction of decisions and personality traits seem doomed? Upon first glance, the main character Edie seems that way. She doesn't have her life 'together' in a typical sense, but the picture that the *DEBUT* author, Raven Leilani, painted of her was so stunning, emotional, tender, genuine—I couldn’t put it down.

To keep a very dynamic, complicated situation simple in this Instagram caption, Edie starts dating a white man in an open marriage, Eric. In a bizarre turn of events, she meets his wife, Rebecca, and—wait for it—moves into their home along with their adopted Black daughter, Akila—an unwilling bond results as two Black girls in this white household and neighborhood. From there, as you can imagine (and beyond, trust me), there are so many awkward fumbles. All the while, we learn of Edie’s past and her deceased parents in such an effortless way that gives us helpful context.

The relationship between Edie and Rebecca took center stage for me—it was much more fascinating than the 'love story' with Eric, who kinda sucked. There were subtle signs of both acceptance and resentment between the two women—a very delicate, awkward dance.

There’s no cuteness, no real outward vulnerability, very little letting down of the guards in this book. But, everything felt very real, and that’s what I loved the most. The circumstances were undoubtedly weird, but the human emotions—often completely unexpressed—came through in every word.

The writing in this book was delicious. Lelani has an insanely impressive talent for combining words. She wrote really long sentences that were sometimes stressful (in a good way). Also, GREAT vocabulary—hoping I retained some words through osmosis. Overall, her way of observing and describing the situation at hand—whether that’s Edie’s past sexcapades or bodily functions or slim bank account or innermost desires and insecurities—was impeccable and vigilant, and something you have to witness for yourself." —@curled___up

"This is a unique review. Did I 'enjoy' reading it? No. Did I read it in one sitting because I couldn't put it down? Yes.

Luster is not my usual book. The style of writing and the characters' behavior created a dynamic where I didn't feel connected to any of them. That worked for the story by causing me to feel their isolation. This is a story of people lacking a connection with anyone and acting in various ways because of that

Edie is a 23-year-old black woman living in Bushwick in an awful apartment, working at a low-paying job, with no friends and no family. Her dreams of a career in art have stalled and she goes through life in a state of disappointment. She meets Eric online and they start dating.

Eric is a 46-year-old white man who lives in the suburbs of New Jersey with his wife and preteen adopted black daughter, Akila. Eric and his wife have an open marriage with strict rules. Edie and Eric’s relationship moves slowly until she finds herself without a job or a place to live and Rebecca invites her to move in. Soon, Edie is living in their house, trying to bond with Akila and building a fragile friendship with Rebecca.

I expected this book to focus on the relationship between Edie and Eric, but it was about so much more than that. In fact, that element really isn't the main focus. Edie is struggling to find her place in the world, to figure out what she wants to do with her life and who she really is. Eric, Rebecca and Akila all play a part in Edie's self-discovery even as they each struggle with their own lives devoid of strong connections with others. It's as if the four of them are all orbiting the same center but their paths connect and diverge repeatedly.

Luster is a deep, thought-provoking book that would be a phenomenal book club book. The discussion topics are endless and the characters lend themselves to analysis. I felt unsettled when I finished it because the characters seemed so sad and alone to me. It's a powerful book that explores race, sexuality, age, and socioeconomic issues in the context of a group of people longing for something or someone to help them find peace and fulfillment on their path through life." —@booked.and.loving.it

"'Because she is thirteen, and I remember how it felt from the inside. I remember what I thought I knew about people, and the pride I took in being alone. But from the outside, the loneliness is palpable, and I think, She is too young.'

Luster is one of those books I could offer a synopsis for, but it wouldn’t encapsulate the full range of emotions this story has to offer readers. Raven Leilani was able to capture so many fluid moments in her story about Edie, a young Black woman in her early 20s, which could leave some with a feeling of a hangover once finishing. I certainly felt that. I loved the first half of the book, but something struck a nerve in the second half and I was unable to pull my thoughts together.

There are many things within this novel that are hard to swallow and there isn’t much time to reflect with how quickly things take place. But Edie’s story is one of trauma after trauma. It’s shocking not only because we as readers witness that trauma, but she’s also so young to have experienced so much already.

It’s not solely her actions, it’s the actions of others that use and manipulate her. The white married couple she’s suddenly involved with exploit her and treat her less than. Edie is young and free to make mistakes, but this couple morphs those blunders into scarring events. Yet Edie endures it all. But the point isn’t whether Edie could overcome her trauma, it’s that she shouldn’t have all of this to endure.

There is much to reflect on especially with the treatment of Black lives in this book and in the real world. I thank Leilani for Edie’s story and the beautiful prose in which it was shared." —@tanyamariereads

Missed out on our August book club pick? In September, we're reading Alyssa Cole's thriller, When No One Is Watching. Read an exclusive excerpt from the book here.


helen hoang the heart principle

(Image credit: Design by Morgan McMullen)

alyssa cole when no one is watching

(Image credit: Design By Morgan McMullen)
Rachel Epstein

Rachel Epstein is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in New York City. Most recently, she was the Managing Editor at Coveteur, where she oversaw the site’s day-to-day editorial operations. Previously, she was an editor at Marie Claire, where she wrote and edited culture, politics, and lifestyle stories ranging from op-eds to profiles to ambitious packages. She also launched and managed the site’s virtual book club, #ReadWithMC. Offline, she’s likely watching a Heat game or finding a new coffee shop.