Certain books make you uncomfortable from page 1. Luster by Raven Leilani is one such book and, by way of proof, here are some gems from that first page:
"The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light...He tells me what he ate for lunch and asks if I can manage to take off my underwear in my cubicle without anyone noticing...He is fond of words like taste and spread."
Yes, it's a book you don't want to read in a book club with your mother.
It is, however, a book you want to read, and likely in one sitting, no matter how much it makes you cringe.
At its surface, Luster's plot revolves around a young black woman's spiral into homelessness that forces her to move in with her white lover, his wife, and adopted daughter, and awkwardness ensues. Edie is an assistant editor for a children's publishing house who spends her working hours sleeping with her male colleagues and sexting with men she meets online. She isn't looking for romance in all of this, just an "ecstatic rutting and cushy ether of the void". She finds as little satisfaction in her sexual relationships as she does in her job, a soul-crushing endeavor that's part of the broader social hierarchy designed to keep black women down.
When we meet Edie, she's about to become entangled with Eric, a married white man old enough to be her father. They engage in a brief and awkward affair as part of his experimentation with an open marriage, with his wife's rules dictating when they meet and for how long. Edie's desperation for his approval is palpable:
"We decide to go on a Tuesday. When he rolls up in his white Volvo, I have only made it to the part of my pre-date routine where I try to find the most appropriate laugh. I put on three dresses before I find the right one. I tie up my braids and line my eyes...I put on a complex pair of underwear that is not so much underwear as a bundle of string, and I stand before the mirror. I think to myself, You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casting."
They go on dates: to a theme park, to bars. There is flirting via text and in-person, and, eventually, painstakingly, there is sex. But it takes so much work for her to get to the sex, so much negative self-talk, so much preparation, that the sex feels more like a release valve—for her and for us. She longs to be dominated, to be hit, and Eric acquiesces, giving their affair an even more paltry edge.
Nestled among vignettes of her relationship with Eric are Edie's twin worries: her financial situation and her overall self-worth, both of which are tied to her personal history of abuse and the broader social inequities she experiences daily as a black woman. These are irrevocably linked: her self-worth dwindles along with her bank account. The more worthless she feels, the more she wants Eric to dominate her, to hit her. She is especially depressed about her artistic ability that seems to be going nowhere. "I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad." When she is finally fired from her job and loses her apartment, she finds herself living with Eric. In time, she develops a friendly—if tense—relationship with Eric's wife, Rebecca, and a becomes a role model for Eric and Rebecca's adopted daughter. Eric and Rebecca's mid-life crisis in their suburban utopia is as embarrassing to read as Edie's desperate pleas for male attention.
And yet, I kept reading.
Few books have made me cringe more often at a character's destructive behavior, but the warts make her realistic. Her struggle to find a job that pays her enough to keep a roof over her head, her devastating family history of abuse and addiction, and her desire to work through the pain using her art all merge together to paint a portrait of a uniquely relatable character. We don't want to be Edie, but we know we are all just a few steps from our own ledges.
And that is uncomfortable.
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