Review: Luster by Raven Leilani

“I was happy to be included in something, even if it was a mostly one-sided conversation with a man twice my age.”

So says Edie, the wryly funny and floundering protagonist of Raven Leilani’s Luster. Her desire to be included in things like one-sided conversations with older men or petty office gossip, however, seesaws throughout the novel as she tightropes on the line of social nicety, eschewing respectability politics in ways that prove disastrous. She wants to be included but deeply resents the barriers to entry—in the publishing world, yes, but also in the world at large—that preclude her from ever really getting ahead. She’s angry enough to put off her white colleagues, but the full force of her anger is never really felt. She’s invested in her own success, but only enough to feel the sting of being passed over for promotions, and not enough to really play the game.

This internal conflict plays out at breakneck speed. At one moment, she tells us how badly she wants to be promoted to a more artistic role in the company. Immediately afterward, she lets us know she’s slept with half (three quarters…?) of the men in her office. Before we can dwell on the contradiction, Edie is on to the next.

The sexual standards she sets for herself will, unfortunately, ring bells for many women: “He knows when I got my first period and I know he is decent to waitstaff, and I’m not interested in sucking the cock of a stranger who has potentially made a waitress cry.” The warm body/beating heart standard of fuckability. This is Leilani at her funniest, and Edie at her most, well, relatable. Even if you aren’t meticulously working your way through the men at your job, the way Edie uses sex for different ends, from hot meals to quick orgasms to having another living person know where she is at any given moment, rings true in a way that feels not only funny, but claustrophobically sad.

Edie, a Black woman immersed in white spaces, is at once hyper visible and invisible to herself. She works jobs where she’s either figuratively (in her open-plan publishing office) or literally (running deliveries for an app) left exposed to the elements. At the same time, she’s cast by others in roles she wouldn’t choose for herself and doesn’t necessarily want to play: sidepiece, temptress, office virago, and in a turn that at once strains the imagination and makes perfect sense, big sister and racial spirit guide to the adopted Black child of the man she’s sleeping with.

At times, Edie tries to assert her existence: “Maybe my life isn’t as serious as yours. But I’m a person.” However, as we know from her inability to paint her own self-portrait, it’s an assertion she herself doesn’t quite believe. It’s less an assertion, really, than a plea for the men in her life—in this case, Eric, one of the men from work—to show her where she begins and ends. If Edie can’t physically locate herself, then maybe the men can.

But of course, they can’t. They’re just sad, paunchy men in the freefall years of middle age, using Edie as shamelessly as Edie uses them. She realizes this in her trademark belated way while attending ComicCon with Eric and his family. As she watches Eric from a distance, she thinks of all the “silly, half-formed women excited by men who’ve simply met the prerequisite of living a little more life,” chagrined to discover how easily she’s become one of them. The sweetness of this revelation is diminished for how long it takes to sink in—by the time Edie discovers her mistake, she is already irreparably intertwined in Eric’s life, in his relationship with his wife, and most importantly, in the life of his daughter.

This could’ve been avoided with a modicum of honesty, of clearly defined expectations, but when Edie has been honest and bared the disagreeable parts of herself in the past, it’s ended badly for all involved. Instead, how honest to be is constantly up for debate, which the reader discovers during Edie and Eric’s first IRL meeting, as Edie openly ponders the merits of how truthfully to represent herself. She constructs a more palatable version, one that appears honest to the point of oversharing. But said candidness is a construct—it’s a fake emotional honesty, good enough to satisfy her paramours, to reflect back at them whatever version of Edie they think they’re getting. It’s a surface level honesty. Which is fine, because she knows that men like Eric won’t go digging.

On their first date, Edie smiles coyly as Eric looks at her across the table, “his undivided attention like a focused point of heat.” In real time, she constructs the version of herself she’ll offer him, a girl as aloof as she is in control, a veneer that lasts approximately one month before the reality of her life comes crashing in. 

“I’m an open book,” Edie promises him, before “thinking of all the men who have found it illegible.”

About the author

Eva Dunsky is originally from Venice, CA, though she currently spends most of her time browsing the $2 rack at The Strand Bookstore in NYC. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction Southeast, Juked Magazine, and The Drum, among others.  She is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Columbia University.

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