I want to start this post by saying, up front, that I bought this book because I knew the author when she worked in my office. While I appreciated how good she was at her job there, I’m thrilled that she’s moved on to bigger and better things. This is not the kind of book that I would typically buy, largely because it is firmly in the “literary fiction” camp (how could it not be when the prose very rightly feels like it was written by a poet?) and it is firmly a modern, non-fantastical story.
I was expecting to finish it, and maybe even enjoy it. I was not expecting to devour it and feel it working it’s way into my mind for days after. As I mentioned in an aside before, the writing style in Luster, by Raven Leilani, is deft. The main character, Edie, is a painter who has lost the drive to paint, and I think similarly to how Raven describes Edie’s process of crafting a painting, from reconstituting dried-out paints to mixing colors to create a face, she also creates her scenes and emotions from the words she chooses. It is no surprise that her words feel poetic because she has previously published poetry in some of the most prestigious outlets.
But what surprises me most is that for such an obviously well-written book by someone who understands that the point of literary fiction is to communicate humanity, I never find the book annoying or overwrought, like I’ve found so many other literary fiction books. There is something about the loveliness of the mundane that makes the store engaging and intriguing without ever feeling like Raven is gloating over her intellectual superiority or artistic skill.
One warning: This is probably not a book you can talk about at the office. This is a book that will leave you biting the edge of your lip and glancing around to see if anyone else notices the heat rising up the side of your neck as you read Raven’s accounts of Edie’s sexual encounters and fantasies. Somehow, she captures the awkwardness of actual sex without losing the appeal of some of her more erotic scenes. And I find Edie’s asides about her sexual misadventures endearing, to the point where you almost root for her to get some every time she does.
But it’s not all sex. To my first read, it didn’t even really read as being mostly about sex. The sexual relationship that initiates the plot turns out to be the least important part of the actual story. There are so many intriguing relationships in the book that I somehow feel it is a disservice to talk about it like it is the story of a women becoming a part of a man’s open marriage. Edie’s relationships with the two women in the family far outshine her relationship with any man.
So I guess all of this was a lot of words that never really told you what this story is about. And, well, a lot of that is by design. You see, the story is mostly about being a human being with a body and needs and a socio-political place in the world, whether it is as a millennial or as a woman or as a Black person or as an artist. Edie explores her identities both in terms of who she is when she’s by herself and who she is when she’s with others.
If you like books, I am not promising you’ll like this book. But you should definitely try it.
(If you’re wondering about the drink in the photo, it’s a cocktail inspired by Raven and her book. It’s 1.5 oz. Hendricks gin, 1.5 oz. lavender kombucha (y’know, for probiotics), and topped with Rare Tea Company TeaLady Grey cold brewed in sparkling water, with a lemon wedge because I didn’t have limes)
NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.