Luster: A Novel

Image of Luster: A Novel
Release Date: 
August 4, 2020
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“Edie just wants to be herself, but trapped somewhere between the luster of her skin and her own lust for rough sex and only half-requited love, she never seems to figure out exactly who that is.”

Edie is a young Black woman in a low-paid editorial job, a borderline sex addict with, she claims, “great breasts” and difficulty making friends. She has no trouble finding lovers, however, and provides a list of office exploits that should encourage new interest in publishing as a career. For now, though, Edie has stopped sleeping around, settling her conflated desires for sex and companionship on Eric, a middle-aged white archivist in a marriage recently “opened.”

Luster is a suggestive title. If the usual meaning of sheen or patina offers references to the facts of the story—some peoples’ inability to see Edie without the filter of race, Edie’s inability to see her situation unvarnished by hope—we know from the novel’s opening words (“The first time we had sex . . .”) and its forcefully confessional tone that “luster” is also being used catachrestically for Edie herself: one who lusts. As the title implies, race and desire compete throughout for the novel’s focus.

Edie loses first her job, then her apartment, and finally the bike she had been using to gig her way to basic survival. She is saved from complete disaster by Eric’s inscrutable wife, Rebecca, a forensic pathologist who surprisingly (some might say implausibly) invites Edie to stay with them and their adopted Black daughter, Akila.

Having reached this place of potential interest, the story comes to a strange standstill. Once Edie is established at Eric and Rebecca’s suburban home, little changes. Eric, like Rebecca, seems sometimes to want her there, sometimes not. Edie helps Akila with her hair and takes her to tae kwon do; she accompanies her first to a punk concert, then to the morgue to sketch cadavers; she attends Akila’s disastrous birthday party.

She has a strange sexual encounter with a famous dermatologist “whose lo-fi ads have papered R, Q, and M trains since 1995.” Only his name has been changed to protect the innocent—if there are any. At the end of every chapter, the characters return more or less uncomfortably to where they were when it began. Despite the presence of his lover in the house, Eric’s marriage seems neither to improve nor deteriorate. Edie makes some advances as a painter, but Rebecca notes that the painting Edie made long ago of her dead mother is still her best work. Here are a house and a novel full of people finding it impossible to move forward.

The narrative works hard to sustain this inertia: someone—we never learn who—leaves Edie envelopes of cash, so there’s no pressing need for her to do anything but examine her feelings about the other characters. These fluctuate as often as theirs about her, leaving everyone’s motivations obscure. In place of momentum, we get flashbacks to the history of Edie’s parents, her mother’s addiction and religious conversion, her father’s callous charm. Only when Eric collapses during a hotel tryst does Rebecca finally order Edie out—but with plenty of time to find a job. First Edie has to accompany the family to Comic Con.

Meanwhile, Edie can’t even decide if she loves Eric or finds him slightly pathetic. The reader is in no such doubt: he’s not just boring, he also fails to be a very good friend. Even as they go through the theoretically titillating early stages of courtship, it’s hard to understand what attracts her. Edie protests—surely too much—that having “done the work” of getting to know him (she told him about her first period, he proved he is nice to wait staff), she doesn’t want to do it again.

While the novel’s title temps us to imagine something about Eric’s whiteness underlying her obsession, we are not invited to explore the idea. We know Edie has dated other white men; what sets this one apart? This is a woman who finds it arousing to be struck in the face and suffer other forms of painful degradation, but except during a stop-and-frisk gone too far, her sexuality is generally divorced from social implications, and this is perhaps the author’s bravest choice: Edie’s desires are her own, and she doesn’t loan that part of herself out for political purposes—an important reminder that she has other identities than the racial one America is so anxious to impose.

In this way she is very different from Aria, the only other adult Black woman we meet, who on the day Edie is fired chides her for her approach, saying, “[I]f I have to, I will shuck and jive.” Edie just wants to be herself, but trapped somewhere between the luster of her skin and her own lust for rough sex and only half-requited love, she never seems to figure out exactly who that is.