After being fired from her job in book publishing, Edie, the narrator of Raven Leilani’s blistering debut novel Luster, accepts an invitation to live in suburban New Jersey. It’s there that Eric, the white middle-aged man she’s been dating, shares a home with his wife and their 12-year-old adopted daughter Akila. But Eric isn’t the one to offer Edie, a Black 23-year-old from Brooklyn, a place to stay. Instead, the invitation comes from Rebecca, Eric’s wife.
Among these four characters, Leilani establishes a tense dynamic that simmers throughout Luster, with Edie at the center. Eric and Rebecca have an open marriage, and Edie doesn’t know exactly where she fits into their relationship. Rebecca pushes Edie closer toward Akila, who is Black, struggling socially and—until Edie’s arrival—surrounded solely by white people. Is this why Rebecca wanted Edie in their home? It’s a question that the protagonist wrestles with, especially as she grows closer with the young girl.
As Edie spends more time with Rebecca, the two women share increasingly intimate experiences. They go to the morgue where Rebecca works, and attend a concert where they end up in the mosh pit together; Edie even dyes Rebecca’s hair. Leilani captures all these moments through Edie’s narration, which thrums with observational humor. While watching Rebecca do yoga, Edie stares at her and remembers when she saw her unclothed: “It bothers me that she doesn’t wear prettier underwear, that her marriage is inscrutable and involved, and that I am somewhere inside it.”
The two women orbit around each other, shifting their dynamic as they each seek control over the same man. But Luster is not a novel concerned with romantic drama. It’s all about attention—why we crave it and what forms it takes. Leilani carefully pulls the strings of Edie, Rebecca, Eric and Akila, revealing how lonely they all are. Though each is desperate for connection in different ways, their isolation only festers.
In seeking to understand who she is to each member of the family, Edie is forced to reckon with her race, sexuality and power. The result plays out through moments unsettling and surreal, carried by the breathless voice of a woman trying to find direction.