[ Read our profile of Raven Leilani. ]
Even when her competitive side is awakened — with her colleague Aria, for example, the only other Black woman on staff, one who has mastered “that unthreatening aw-shucks shtick for all the professional whites” — she shows generosity and a desire for kinship. “Even as we look at each other through borrowed faces, we see each other. I see her hunger, and she sees mine.”
A blurry feeling settled over me as I kept encountering rhyming descriptions and plot points. Edie’s moments of connection with women take identical forms. She shares a cigarette with each of them, and cares for their hair, or tries to. She tenderly dyes Rebecca’s hair, and she teaches Akila how to care for hers, traveling back to Brooklyn to buy the oil and conditioners unavailable in the white suburbs. Other details repeat: Rebecca monitors Akila’s weight in a way that reminds Edie of her own mother: “We were bonded in our mutual hatred of our bodies.”
It’s a book full of pairs, relationships that mirror one another. It is, in fact, a book gleaming with actual mirrors. There are countless references to Edie gazing at her reflection — in dressing rooms, at the bathroom at a party. “Sometimes the face I see doesn’t feel like mine,” she says. That tension creeps into the painting she pursues in her spare time; she’s unable to complete a self-portrait.
This is the governing terror Edie describes in her life, and in the lives of the Black women in the novel: If you are hypersurveilled but unseen, can you lose sight of your own face? Your own desires?
The reader, though, perhaps sees Edie too clearly. Narrative causality flows a little too neatly, the back story filters in to explain Edie as a culmination of her upbringing — her father’s philandering, her mother’s addiction and drive to oblivion. It’s strange, perhaps, to crave more privacy for a fictional character, but I wanted it for Edie. I wanted more mystery, for her to resist being so neatly summed up. In a word she might use, I wanted agency for her, but this story is interested in inheritance, hence those echoes and doublings. Why do the gestures repeat? We use what is available to us, the tools and habits of consolation; we use what we have been taught, on ourselves and on others.
One of Edie and Eric’s few shared interests is disco, the pleasure of which Edie explains slightly apologetically: It’s the “too much,” she says, it’s “the horn section and the cheese.” So it is with “Luster.” Your enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for run-on sentences that strain painfully for profundity (“for a moment I consider the possibility of God as a chaotic, amorphous evil who made autoimmune disease but gave us miraculous genitals to cope” begins one such example), for odd, often indecipherable metaphors. When Edie is discovered snooping in Akila’s room, she describes seeing the embarrassment on the young girl’s face “like seeing an Olive Garden commercial after having already plowed through two bowls of fettuccine.”
The dialogue is flat, mostly expository with an interesting repetition. The characters frame their impatience with Edie — her transgressions, her need — as a generational divide, prefiguring, perhaps, how this book might be read. Novels by young writers tend to attract a strange sort of attention — more anthropological than literary. What does the work of Sally Rooney tell us about “millennial precarity”? What does Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” reveal about gender and power? It’s not that fiction can’t be a rich mine of evidence, but such analyses often go against how and why most people read. Do we go to Ann Petry for a sociological snapshot of midcentury Harlem life? “Anna Karenina” for hot takes on the sexual politics of the Russian landed gentry? We don’t go to novels because they are timely, but because they feel timeless in their treatment of consciousness and emotional life. We don’t want characters to exist as a bundle of symptoms but as full personalities in their rich confusion and ambivalence.
Edie could tell you all that. She enacts it; she’d flinch from being lazily lumped in with any trend or cohort. “Why does it have to be my generation?” she learns to respond. “Why can’t it be me, specifically?”