The One Where Edie is Self-Loathing: Luster by Raven Leilani

Short review: It’s a book that could easily be an art house movie.

In fact, it was pretty easy, while reading Luster, Leilani’s debut novel, to picture the characters on screen, come to life, in all their angsty awful splendor.

Long review: Our protagonist, a young 20-something named Edie, is not … ( sits here for a few minutes trying to find the right adjective …) … in a good place. Having slept her way through most of the men and a few women at her office, and still struggling with the end of one of those relationships, she spends a large portion of her day sharpening her work avoidance skills, and messaging back and forth with her latest paramour, a married man named Eric.

No one needs to pile on — Edie knows she’s not a good person. There’s a seed of one there, and you can feel it in her anxiety, which Leilani wields skillfully in half-page long sentences that convey the frenetic pace to her own chaotic discord. Edie’s a mess, and at this point, all she wants is to at least get a good painting out of it.

When Edie and Eric finally meet and consummate their affair, nothing gets easier. Edie desperately tries to remain emotionally unattached, and her self-loathing behavior only makes it worse. An individual void of all the good kinds of validation eventually will seek it in destructive ways, submitting to abuse, taking on the worst kind of side gigs to make ends meet … and willfully submitting to a complicated friendship with Eric’s wife, Rebecca.

It’s a story that doesn’t make any sense — mistress moves in with lover’s family — but Edie feels very real despite the fictional environment. Her parents did her no favors, which explains the need to be seen by anyone, and being willing to do anything to achieve that end.

“Luster” has appeared on a number of 2020 lists, any one of which in my Twitter feed being the reason it crossed my radar. It’s not a fun, happy ending, love prevails over trauma kind of read, but like I said above — more like an afternoon at the art house, becoming entwined in complicated, damaged lives and sleeping well because you’ve been challenged to emotional exhaustion in understanding a literary character’s choices.

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