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Debut novel Luster is a biting psychosexual family satire

In Raven Leilani’s novel, family traumas echo across romance.

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The cover of the novel Luster by Raven Leilani. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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Luster, the debut novel by Raven Leilani that is the Vox Book Club’s February book pick, exists in several genres at once.

It’s a social satire, with all its carefully detailed descriptions of what it’s like to be Black and a woman in the midst of New York media. Leilani is ruthless toward the polite liberal racism and misogyny of this world: the diversity book tables full of slave narratives, the complimentary hand lotion put out in the women’s restroom of a company with a massive gender wage gap, the punishingly low salary and mindless drudgery our protagonist Edie puts up with in exchange for proximity to a world where people make art.

It’s a künstlerroman, meaning that it is about the development of an artist. Over the course of the novel, Edie goes from being a frustrated amateur unable to improve her basic figure drawing skills to someone capable of capturing on canvas something that feels real. We follow along as she fiddles with portraits that are both representational and figurative, trying to capture the Walkers, their house, her mother, herself.

But most fundamentally, Luster is a family novel. It’s about the way we replicate our childhood family structures in our romantic lives, and how that’s maybe the only way we have of exorcising the trauma of being a child.

“I’ve made my own hunger into a practice,” Edie tells us in the final pages of the book, “made everyone who passes through my life subject to a close and inappropriate reading.” Edie’s reading is psychoanalytical: She’s a classic Freudian. And she wants the Walkers, whose marriage she walks into, to be her parents.

Edie is clear fairly early on that she is drawn to her boyfriend, white and married Eric, because she considers him a father substitute. “In person he is a total daddy,” she tells us. She likes that he is older than she is and wealthier and more stable; she likes that he is, unlike her own father, someone she can more or less rely on. She calls him daddy in bed (“it’s not my fault,” she tells us), and he responds by telling her he loves her.

What Eric is getting out of this arrangement becomes slightly clearer when we find out that he has recently adopted a young Black girl named Akila as his daughter, and that he finds her confusing. Edie, who is Black, becomes an avatar of Akila to white Eric. She becomes someone who, unlike his actual daughter, will reciprocate his affection in a straightforward way — and also someone it is safe for him to hurt when he is frustrated. And Edie, for her part, finds this hurt satisfying as a means of connecting herself to her own dead mother. She tells us that she can only see the resemblance between herself and her mother when there are bruises on her face.

It is Eric’s idea to bring Edie into his marriage, much as it was Eric’s idea to adopt Akila. But both Akila and Edie end up having much more significant relationships with Eric’s wife Rebecca, a white medical examiner who was far more reluctant to adopt or to have an open marriage. (The wife doing all the emotional labor with a person the husband chose to bring into their lives is a gender dynamic so common it feels silly to even bother pointing it out.)

It’s Rebecca who, with her “freaky competence,” can offer and withhold the fraught and conditional approval that Akila and Edie are most interested in. Rebecca is interested in shaping both of them to fit a certain model of bourgeois feminine respectability, even as she herself — with her secret topless moshing — clearly feels constrained by the same model. She pushes small child Akila to diet and to study math with her racist tutor; she pushes Edie to clean the Walker house and work on her art more. And it is Rebecca, in the end, who is the only person who can offer both Edie and Akila some modicum of protection from the racist cop who menaces them.

Perhaps it’s because Rebecca is the member of the Walker family who forms the deepest emotional bond with Edie that Edie is able to connect to her art by painting Rebecca. After starting her blocked career with a portrait of her dead biological mother, Edie transcends her artistic stasis with a portrait of her replacement mother, the medical examiner who wakes the dead.

And with that portrait, Edie wrests control away from Rebecca — and, by extension, away from her first mother, the dead one. She becomes the one who shapes Rebecca, not the one who is shaped. She captures Rebecca on canvas.

At the end of Luster, Edie tells us that she is waiting for someone to do the same thing to her. She wants someone to capture her on canvas, “with merciless, deliberate hands,” in the same way that she has just captured Rebecca. That is what she hungers for.

With Luster, Leilani does just that. She captures Edie on the page. She gives her own main character what she’s been longing for.

Tell us your thoughts on Luster in the comments section below, and be sure to join us on February 22 for our live event with Raven Leilani herself. In the meantime, subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Discussion questions

  1. A lot of Edie’s choices are motivated by the fact that she has no family safety net to fall back on: She can’t go live with her parents for a while after she’s fired and figure out her next move from there because she doesn’t have parents. That’s a situation a lot of aspirational arts fields aren’t set up to accommodate (see for instance publishing or museums). How do you think Edie’s lack of family wealth changes the structure of this book?
  2. Edie spends a while working for a Postmates-like app, and it’s clearly a terrible job. How does the gig economy help force Edie into this precarious position? What’s the worst job you’ve ever worked?
  3. What do you think the conversation between Eric and Rebecca where they decided on an open marriage was like? I bet that was some interesting use of Radical Candor.
  4. Edie’s most prominent ex, Mark, was a man she slept with more for his proximity to her professional goals (getting paid for art) than for his resemblance to an ideal father. How do you think moving between those two romantic poles affects her character arc?
  5. Would you read Akila’s erotic Batman/Superman fanfiction? I would not, but I would leave it kudos on AO3 anyway.
  6. Is clowning in fact about laughter?
  7. Rebecca’s motivations remain slightly shadowy the whole way through, as she by turns welcomes Edie, intrudes on her space, pushes her to be a Black person mentor to Akila, and then throws her out. What do you think she wants from this whole thing?