Luster by Raven Leilani

My Rating: 4 stars

Luster came up on a Never-Ending TBR post last month, and I mentioned I would probably listen to it on audiobook while I commuted. Lo and behold, it popped up as an available audiobook on Libby last week, and it did, in fact, make an excellent commute read. We follow Edie, a black woman in her 20’s who begins seeing Eric, an older man whose wife agreed to an open relationship with rules. But the rules go out the window when she breaks into his house and meets the wife, Rebecca, who invites Edie to move in after she loses her job and apartment. Leilani takes the overused trope of a middle age man having an affair with a young woman and turns it into something we need more of: an exploration of black womanhood in the US. I’m glad I picked up this book just for that because it’s a topic I need to engage with more.

Leilani is an excellent writer. There were so many gorgeous passages I wanted to jot down for later, which is the one downfall of listening to an audiobook while driving. But listening to Leilani’s prose read out loud was worth the tradeoff. The audiobook is narrated by Ariel Blake, who captures Edie’s voice perfectly. I didn’t find Edie an especially likeable character, but she is certainly an interesting one. She’s angry and desperate and unapologetic about any of it. So even though she’s an off-putting character in many ways, her narrative voice drew me right in and didn’t let go.

Leilani’s biggest talent is crafting the dynamics between the characters so the reader can feel how uncomfortable the whole situation is. There are so many awkward moments, and sometimes I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to laugh or crawl into a hole due to second hand embarrassment. The strange pseudo-friendship between Edie and Rebecca feels like it could either go deeper or fall apart at any given moment. The whole book feels like the moment you hold your breath waiting for the other shoe to drop. But my favorite part was the relationship between Edie and Akila. Akila is Rebecca and Eric’s adopted daughter, and she and Edie are the only black people in the suburban community. I loved seeing Akila slowly open up to Edie, and there are some truly moving moments between the two.

Overall, Luster is a beautiful and raw novel that rises above the trope of a young woman having an affair with an older, married man to become an exploration of black womanhood in the 21st century. I can’t wait to see what else Leilani has in store.

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