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The Messy Imperfect Story of a 23-Year-Old Gen Zer

Luster a novel

By: Raven Leilani

This was a book that I really wasn’t sure I could review. While it was very well written, I hated the characters in this book. Every one of them was extremely flawed and not very likable, which makes you question how you feel about it. And yet, almost every review you read gives this book high marks. So contrary to my personal feelings, I would be doing all of you a disservice if I didn’t let you make the choice of whether or not to read it.

Luster is a debut novel by author Raven Leilani. The novel is narrated in the present tense by Edie, a 23-year-old, extremely confused and lonely young woman. Edie is alone in the world, and she is looking for someone, anyone to take notice of her. This emptiness makes her do a lot of stupid things.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Leilani says that she wanted to write the story of a Black woman who was not a “pristine, neatly moral character.” Edie is a 23-year-old Gen Z’er who just can’t seem to get her life together. But then again, do any of us have our life together at 23? Probably not, but Edie takes it to a whole new level.

Edie works for a publishing company, doing the bare minimum, having casual sexual encounters with all the other employees, and spending her days on dating and “meet-up” apps. She can barely pay for the rent in her roach-infested walk-up apt in Brooklyn and sometimes has to decide between buying food or paints.

Painting is the one thing that Edie does well. She is a talented artist, and when she is feeling stressed or sad she is able to get her feelings out on a canvas. But time and time again, Edie makes very bad choices. Her latest sexual escapades at work have gotten her in trouble, enough trouble to get her fired. With no job, and no family to support her, Edie finds that she will be out on the street within days.

At the beginning of the book, Edie starts having an affair with a married man named Eric. Eric is a middle-aged white man, who has an open marriage. It is clear that he wants to take care of Edie; almost like a father figure that Edie never really had. We understand that Edie didn’t have strong role models in her life, with a mother who died young and an absent father who died soon after. Her affairs with older men are clearly to fill a void for the caregiver that she craves.

What happens next is sort of unbelievable. Edie gets fired from her job and knows homelessness is in her near future. Due to some peculiar circumstances, she ends up living with Eric, his wife Rebecca, and their adopted black daughter, Akila. The strangest part is that Edie is invited by Rebecca. After finishing the book, I still don’t understand why Rebecca invited her husband’s mistress to live with them but I think some of it may have to do with the adopted daughter. Akila was adopted as an older child and is having a hard time adapting to living with a white family in the suburbs. Does Rebecca hope that Edie will get through to Akila and form a relationship with her? Since they most likely have no black friends, maybe Rebecca hopes that Akila will have someone to talk to? Edie and Akila do form a relationship and this may be the only kindness that Edie shows in the novel. Edie helps Akila with her hair, and they form a strong kinship over video games and comic books. As a reader, what you will come to understand is that Edie has more in common with a 10-year-old than her forty-six-year-old lover and his wife.

Gabino Iglesias writes in an NPR review that “Books that make me cringe are usually bad…Luckily, sometimes a book comes along that makes me cringe for all the right reasons.”

Iglesias has captured my reasons for uncertainty about the book. I cringed at every bad choice Edie made in her 23-year-old life. And as much as you question all of the decisions she makes, it is so interesting that Edie herself knows she makes the wrong choices all the time. She just can’t stop making them. And she has no one telling her what the “right” decisions are.

Leilani has written a book about very flawed characters. There are no heroes, there is no lesson learned. This is a story about a young girl trying to make her way in the world. A girl who wants things, and knows what she must do to get them, but just doesn’t do them. She knows what it would take to dig herself out of the hole of her life, but she just doesn’t really feel like it.

To make the decision of whether or not to read this book, I will say despite the flawed characters and the far from perfect ending, you will come out of it with an understanding of what it can be like to be young these days. And honestly, I want no part of it.

Luster a novel

By: Raven Leilani

Publication Date: August 4, 2020

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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