Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020
With Luster, I continue my trend of reading ARCs that I’ve picked up from book conferences (this time ALA in Philly), and I have not been led astray yet. I attended a panel of three debut female authors with their (female) editors. I thought it would be interesting to hear authors discuss their novels alongside their editors, plus I’d heard a lot of men speaking the day before and really needed to hear some female voices. While all three novels sounded exciting, it was this book and the author, Raven Leilani, that really caught my attention.
I picked up this book last night hoping that it would pull me out of a slight reading rut. I’ve been working my way through a long dense read for almost a month and it was time to take a break. I remembered how Luster sounded so new and exciting when I heard Leilani speak and thought it would be the perfect change in pace. I could not have made a better choice. I started and finished this novel in an evening.
One thing Leilani’s editor repeatedly said was that it was the incredible sentence-level writing that drew her to this manuscript. And after reading, I fully agree. Some sentences are absurdly quotable. Some are hilariously relatable. And some are so long and winding that you almost lose track. . . but in turn are made to slow down and focus on the words in the moments that require it, as if it was intentional. (It definitely was. Have you ever encountered someone and gotten the feeling that their mind operates on a level on which yours can barely comprehend? That’s how I felt listening to Raven Leilani speak.)
And the characters! The protagonist is a 23-year-old black woman, and the other central characters are an older wealthy white married couple, and their adopted 12-year-old black daughter. None of them are people I have any major commonalities with, and yet each one of them feels relatable in their realness. Each flaw these characters have—and there are many—is convincing. And so, as you read about the unusual and increasingly insane scenario that unfolds, at no point does the plot feel invented or exaggerated. The tone and 1st person POV create a strange surface-level calm that exists around a situation that is objectively stressful. While reading, I thought about how overwhelmed I would’ve been in the protagonist’s place; how I likely would have given up entirely. This led me to consider that my version of giving up is a privilege the protagonist did not have. I would have gone home, moved into my childhood room, moved onto a friend’s couch, borrowed money . . . but the protagonist doesn’t have these options. She has this sort of calm, immediate acceptance of every twist and turn because she doesn’t have much choice but to roll with the punches.
“And the truth is that when the officer had his arm pressed into my neck, there was a part of me that felt like, all right. Like, fine. Because there will always be a part of me that is ready to die.”
Not all of Luster is this dark. A lot of it is, because things really are this bad in the world, but just as all our lives are, it is sometimes normal, mundane even, or funny, or surprisingly nice, and a million other things besides.