I was very excited to see Barack Obama’s reading list come out at the end of 2020, and I immediately added some of his recommendations to my reading list. One of these was Luster (2020) by Raven Leilani. It wasn’t just Barack Obama who noticed this one: Luster was also on the best books list of NPR, Oprah, and many others.
Edie is a young, black woman in her 20’s. She lives in Brooklyn and does administrative work at a production company. Her mother killed herself and her father is dead. She grew up really religious, and she makes a lot of bad choices. In fact, soon after the book begins, Edie is fired.
Edie sneaks into the suburban home of Eric, the older, married, white man she met on Tinder (or something like Tinder). She runs into his wife, Rebecca, who is already aware of her, and ends up inviting Edie to a party at their home that night. It seems that Rebecca mainly does this to surprise and confuse her husband. Edie eventually ends up meeting their adopted daughter, Akila, who is also black. At some point Rebecca becomes aware that Edie has lost her job and has no money, and invites Edie to stay at their home.
In some ways, this is a good situation. Edie is a good role model for Akila. She helps her with her hair and gets rid of her racist tutor. She also cleans around the house, and is given money for her work. Edie has a temporary place to stay and good food.
It is also the most awkward and uncomfortable situation you can imagine. Even recounting part of this book now makes me cringe. You feel like Rebecca feels animosity towards both Edie and her husband, but nothing is said out loud. Rebecca seems to have a lot of unexpressed rage and frustration. Eric handles the situation by mostly ignoring Edie–except when his restraint breaks and he watches her in the shower. Akila is half aware of all of this, and doesn’t want Edie breaking up her family, or as much of a family as she’s ever had. There’s no discussion of how long Edie will stay or what she will get paid for what chores. There are no ground rules regarding who can have sex with whom. Edie snoops around the house in a bizarre fashion, and I was afraid they were going to kick her out.
Edie is also a pretty dark character. She seems to mope around without direction or plan besides immediate survival. She was constantly making her life worse, and she often had no hope for herself at all. This book was definitely challenging to read, and I wouldn’t call it enjoyable. However, it was original and memorable. I also found myself highlighting line after line as I read. See below for some of the lines that caught my eye.
“The last time I painted, I was twenty-one. The president was black. I had more seratonin and I was less afraid of men.”
“It’s that there are gray, anonymous hours like this. Hours when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void.”
“She still rearranges herself, waiting to be chosen. And she will be. Because it is an art–to be black and dogged and inoffensive.”
“This was the contradiction that would define me for years, my attempt to secure undiluted solitude and my swift betrayal of this effort once in the spotlight of an interested man.”
“The sort of high-yellow woman who believed her fair complexion was the result of an errant Native American gene, but who was, like so many of us, walking proof of American industry, the bolls and ships and casual sexual terrorism that put a little cream in the coffee and made her family loyal to the almighty paper bag.”
“Having already been in the process of filing him away, burying him with the other men who evaporate after pulverizing my cervix, I am relieved, and yes, I am ashamed.”
“I think of all the gods I have made out of feeble men.”
“They were dying inside their own bodies, and now all these dead components are my inheritance.”
“I am inclined to pray, but on principle, I don’t. God is not for women. He is for the fruit. He makes you want and he makes you wicked, and while you sleep, he plants a seed in your womb that will be born just to die.”
“If I’m honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence.”
“Because there will always be a part of me that is ready to die.”
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