Not nearly as edgy as it thinks it is

By Raven Leilani
240 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.

This isn’t the kind of book I like to review, because I find it hard to summon much feeling about it — either good or bad. It’s an easy read, an enjoyable read even, but it also falls well short of the hype surrounding it.

Leilani is likely trying to say something really clever and poignant about the state of relationships in 2020 (a non-pandemic 2020, mind you), about interracial relationships and open relationships more specifically.

“Luster” is aiming, almost always, to make us uncomfortable with its crass edginess, its magnifying of the class and racial differences between Edie, a black twenty-something living paycheck-to-paycheck in Brooklyn who’s stuck working a job she hates, and Eric, a white, wealthy forty-something who lives across the bridge in New Jersey who no longer has to stoop to taking public transportation when he’s in “the City.”

Racial differences, check. Class differences, check. Oh, and Eric is also married, with an adopted daughter — black like Edie — but it’s an open marriage so his wife, Rebecca, knows about the whole “fooling around with Edie” thing and is apparently cool with it, provided certain rules are followed.

If you’ve heard anything about this book, though, you’ve probably heard that, because that’s basically the pitch that sold this thing. “An interracial relationship between a young black woman and an older, married white man. Oh, and she ends up moving in with his family!”

That’s the book. And I mean, that is the book, because it never quite goes beyond that. There’s the odd bit of sex, which is not the least bit erotic because it’s here mostly to tell us how fucked up both Edie and Eric are (she really likes it when he punches her in the face), but the heart of this thing is Edie’s relationship with Akila — Eric and Rebecca’s adopted black daughter who has no friends and lives in an entirely white neighborhood with people who look at her funny (on both counts we’re to presume it’s because she’s black) and neither Eric nor Rebecca have any idea how to make Akila feel more at home.

So Rebecca invites Edie to stay, apparently with the notion that maybe her daughter needs a young black woman to learn from … and she does learn, mainly not to resist when being arrested and not to leave relaxer in your hair too long because it burns (see the Chris Rock documentary “Good Hair” for a better breakdown of this).

“Luster” feels like it’s attempting to be several things all at once, and I’m not sure it manages to succeed at any of it. Its hip, written-for-Millennials vibe and the way it throws around consumer products reminded me of Ling Ma’s Severance, but it mostly made me think about how much better “Severance” is.

“Luster” is also saying something about race, but it never goes deeper than cops stop you because you’re black, white parents don’t understand black teenagers, and whatever it’s trying to say about the role race plays in the strange power dynamic between Edie and Eric (are we supposed to believe that the occasional violence he inflicts on her and that she asks for is due to his being white and her being black? A sort of master/slave thing?).

But mostly, “Luster” wants to be terribly edgy when it comes to sex and relationships, but it doesn’t really ever get off the ground. It’s an interesting concept that’s sort of just written around, like a writing prompt you might get in Creative Writing 101.

I’d give it a B. The potential is there but, oddly for a book with this subject matter, it doesn’t feel daring enough.

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