The New Yorker raved. Last summer’s buzz was deafening. Barack Obama touted it on his 2020 reading list. Zadie Smith (Leilani’s tutor and mentor; she gets thanked in the acknowledgements) raved.
Luster is pulpy. It has a get-a-load-of-this kernel at the center of the plot (and I use that term loosely.) A young black woman has an affair with a married white man, Eric. He’s twice Edie’s age. He’s in an open marriage with his wife, Rebecca. Edie ends up moving in with the couple and their daughter. Who is adopted. And black. Akila. Edie lives in Bushwick, works in Manhattan. Eric and company live in New Jersey.
It’s a whopper premise. Your plausibility meter may wilt. Edie befriends the daughter after a prickly start, and goes to work with the wife of her lover. But her lover’s wife has no ordinary job; she does autopsies. She’s a medical examiner. Edie is already extremely conscious of body parts and shapes; Rebecca gives her a chance to look inside. The triangle of Edie-Rebecca-Akila carries more risk, it seems, that Edie-Rebecca-Eric.
The writing has energy to burn. The novel is a master class in narrative voice. Vocabulary. Slang. Idioms. Edie, our narrator, dispenses opinions at a rapid clip. She works in publishing. That is, until she is fired for sexually inappropriate behavior. Edie knows writing—and her descriptions are frothy 100 percent cream. Edie is in near constant state of motion and her thoughts race, too. We hurtle along in a tumble of commentary on race, sex, work, class, relationships, and art. Edie wants to be an artist. A serious one. She does self-portraits. She paints Rebecca, too. Edie constantly studies her image in mirrors. Every body part is a potential metaphor.
Edie’s wit is sharp. She can riff on any subject under the sun. At others, however, it’s overwrought. “I restore the room to its original form and listen to the suburban quiet, the soft hybrid hum, the monastic baying of land-protecting dogs, the laughter of clear-skinned kids, a chorus of perpetually unlatched screen doors, and all the bugs, trying in earnest to fuck before they die.” Monastic baying? Clear-skinned kids laugh differently than others? Edie snoops through Akila’s room and decides it smells like “body butter and Hot Pockets, like a rank, pubescent Yankee Candle.” Pubescent candle? What?
The writing tries too hard, like this 151-word sentence while Edie is still checking out Akila’s room: “Because of my sexless career as a high-school studio art kid, I was frequently adjacent to the prototypes for girls like this, girls who were horse-girls except with cats, girls with patches and pins who uploaded their Suicide Girl auditions with the translucent computer lab Macs, girls who were Goth-lite, in and out of Hot Topic and Torrid with their weepy, sallow boys, shy dabblers in anime and D&D, though in the years I have been away I see it has gotten sexier and more bleak, the interludes between Akila’s shrines to Guillermo del Toro and Tim Burton dripping in intermediate sorcery and sex, bloody grindhouse stills framed next to fishnets and a wilted go-go boot, all of the hairless CGI men with their hips canted, corollaries of the comic stacks and spell scrolls and everything else exalting the perfect and unreal.”
Phew. You feel like you’ve just swum a few laps all underwater—and you wonder what to end? The ending of the story, with all the complications for Edie that one might anticipate, will leave you asking the same question.