Why Raven Leilani's 'Luster' Is This Summer's Must-Read

Race, capitalism, morality, desire, adoption — everything collides, chaotically, in what may be the debut novel of the year.
Raven Leilani's "Luster" tells the story of a young Black woman who finds herself tangled up in an older white man's open marriage.
Raven Leilani's "Luster" tells the story of a young Black woman who finds herself tangled up in an older white man's open marriage.

I didn’t anticipate what would happen when I opened my pre-ordered copy of Raven Leilani’s debut novel, “Luster.” I had ordered it on a whim, because a friend whose discerning judgment I revere tweeted about it, and because Zadie Smith blurbed it with a combination of words that included “exacting,” “hilarious,” “daring,” and “deadly.” So I bought it.

Two things happened when I opened it: one, I realized Zadie was right, and two, I realized I was reading a kind of masterpiece, and that I wouldn’t put the novel down until I finished it.

“Luster” has been getting heaps of feverish praise. It was on every “most anticipated summer releases” list. Everyone seems to be talking about it. The New York Times praised its “acidic verisimilitude,” the New Yorker its “knowing, understated wit,” and Frieze “the threat of a sharp edge on every page.” “Raven Leilani Is Your New Favorite Novelist,” reads an ELLE.com headline, and they’re right: its 29-year-old author, a graduate of New York University’s MFA fiction program, has struck a cultural tension with enviable precision. (A week after its release, the novel has already made its way onto The Times coveted best sellers list.)

I’ve tried to summarize “Luster” to the dozens of people I’ve now recommended it to (sorry to my colleagues at HuffPost Canada), and I’ve failed on each occasion. It looks different depending on how you hold it up to the light. The book jacket says something like this: it’s about a 20-something Black woman named Edie who lives precariously — in a shitty Bushwick apartment she shares with a roommate and some mice — and who falls into an open marriage with a white man named Eric, a wealthy digital archivist who leaves lengthy, baroque comments on her Instagram posts and has an adopted Black daughter whose race exposes all his failures in understanding.

“I can feel it in how cautiously he says African American,” Leilani writes. “How he absolutely refuses to say the word black.” When Edie loses her low-salary job as an assistant book editor and moves into Eric’s home, with his wife and teenage daughter, a chemically unstable situation emerges, threatening to implode at any moment. And, two years into a spell of artistic paralysis, Edie picks up her paint brushes to find, oddly, that she’s finally regained her mojo.

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I think the book is what it means to be alive right now — which might seem like a cop out of an answer, but it’s true. It’s about the pitfalls of sex and desire. It’s about the unique challenges of adopting a kid whose cultural background diverges from your own. It’s about how capitalism saps our precious creative spirit and how “survival defers dreams.” It’s about how racism is less like interpersonal exchanges and more like cultural weather, omnipresent and inescapable and permeating everything around us; about how we choreograph ourselves to fit the fantasies of other people; about how history is never really finished with us.

“I wanted to write a story about a Black woman who fails a lot and is sort of grasping for human connection and making mistakes,” Leilani told the Times. “I didn’t want her to be a pristine, neatly moral character.” She succeeds in this regard: her character is cynical and loquacious with a bent for sadomasochism, and is guided almost solely by her id.

But her observations of the world around her are also startlingly lucid. There is a coworker’s “bleached, Warholian cool.” There is the “sweet, copyrighted” scent of black women, of “jojoba oil, pink lotion, blue magic.” New York City “insist[s] upon its own enormity like some big-dick postmodernist fiction.” Sentences begin as planned and then pivot midway through, catching you off-guard as though you weren’t quite paying attention, then catapulting you toward the wildest imaginable destination, defecting from the promised course with a confidence that assures you that this way, the scenic route, is far better than the alternative. An excerpted, Olympian sentence to show Leilani delighting in her own control of language, festooned with her trademark acerbity:

I go up to the table and scan the books, and there are a few new ones: a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father’s estate; a slave narrative about a runaway’s friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teaches her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies; a domestic drama about a black maid who, like Schrödinger’s cat, is both alive and dead, an unseen, nurturing presence who exists only within the bounds of her employer’s four walls; an “urban” romance where everybody dies by gang violence; and a book about a Cantonese restaurant, which may or may not have been written by a white woman from Utah, whose descriptions of her characters rely primarily on rice-based foods.

In case you wanted another sample, there’s a little taste test of the novel in The Cut (and another in the Times, and another in Marie Claire, and another in Electric Lit.) Better, I think, to let the work speak for itself. It’s a book that’s in conversation with so many others, old and new, from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” and Toni Morrison’s “Sula” to Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year Of Rest and Relaxation,” Halle Butler’s “The New Me” and Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” It’s a “novel of the moment,” sure, but that title almost feels reductive: moments are, by definition, fleeting, and a novel as haunting as this gets tangled up in your psyche and maybe never leaves you. It’s beautiful, and funny, and smart, and bold. It’s something to wake up early for, a book that implores you to override your body’s demand for rest. I wish I could read it again, but for the first time. Unfortunately, I can’t. But you can. (And you should.)