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Luster by Raven Leilani

A book I was expecting to love, a book I started loving as I started reading it and a book I ended up very disappointed with. There isn’t a greater disappointment for a reader than a book that starts strongly and ends up leaving you indifferent. Luster, a very anticipated debut of 2020 that ended up only as a debut, a visible debut. I seem to be saying this too often (recently I had the same conclusion for How Much of These Hills Is Gold), it is sad when a debut feels like a debut because it obviously needed more work to become a very good book. Unfortunately, without that extra work it turned out only as a very mediocre book.

“Otherwise, I have not had much success with men. This is not a statement of self-pity. This is just a statement of the facts. Here’s a fact: I have great breasts, which have warped my spine. More facts: My salary is very low. I have trouble making friends, and men lose interest in me when I talk. It always goes well initially, but when I talk too explicitly about my ovarian torsion or my rent.”

Luster starts with such a distinct, brutally honest narrator, who narrates her story in the 1st person, filled with such a strong, unique personality. I don’t remember the last time I encountered such a fierce narrative voice, so distinctive, recognizable, filled with character, humor and attitude towards everything. So distinct and unique that I had a feeling that if I read a couple of sentences by that narrator anywhere again I would be able to recognize her immediately.

Edie is a young black woman working in publishing for a low wage, an artist, drowning in student debts, lost in both: in her relationships with men and her work, unsure of what she wants in life. She gets sucked in a strange relationship with a married white man (with an adopted black daughter) whose wife knows not only of the affair, she is, weirdly, a part of it.

And that is from where the novel went sideways. From such a distinct personality she just disappears or even dissipates, maybe that was exactly what Leilani intended to portray, but I would say it was a dissipation of the whole novel. Not only was the main character unsure what to do next, so was the author. From such an interesting beginning, such a strong disposition, her early life trauma, such an interesting love triangle, her strange relationship with the wife, a relationship between care and hate, it all comes to quite nothing and the novel just starts to drag on and ends the same way.

“I’ve made my own hunger into a practice, made everyone who passes through my life subject to a close and inappropriate reading that occasionally finds its way, often insufficiently, into paint. And when I am alone with myself, this is what I am waiting for someone to do to me, with merciless, deliberate hands, to put me down onto the canvas so that when I’m gone, there will be a record, proof that I was here.”

I suppose this novel could be interpreted as Edie’s transition from childhood, a bad job, bad relationships, bad decisions, insecurities into adulthood, a new apartment, a new job, a new loneliness that was exactly what she needed to move on. But generally, I would have loved to have seen a completely different novel after the first third of it.

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