Review: “Luster”, by Raven Leilani

I have a hard time not finishing books. In theory, I’m in favor of putting a book down if it doesn’t work for you, but in practice I usually finish. And I finish because 99% of the time, I find that something memorable comes from a novel, be that a lesson in craft, an unforgettable scene, a fresh character or a important message, something.

At first, despite Leilani’s effortless writing style, I wasn’t sure about the cool, remote voice and I felt myself struggling to relate to any character in the book. In fact, I was cringing at the protagonist’s every move or decision (Don’t do that in the office. Don’t text back.) and most of the time I couldn’t sympathize with her as she struggled with the consequences of her actions. I should also note here that I’m not typically drawn in by romance or promiscuity (you won’t find me up late, reading page after page to see if he’ll call her back)…if that’s you, you’ll be sold on page 1.

And yet. Gradually, I was drawn into the weird relationships that Leilani creates in her novel (brief synopsis: twenty-something moves in with the family of her lover, a forty-something in an open marriage), and the ways that subtle shifts in those relationships speak VOLUMES about so many huge themes and motifs: family, power, sex, love, race, and especially, art.

Over the past few weeks, I find myself thinking about this novel so much more than I ever would have anticipated when reading those first few pages, and what I find myself thinking about is art and artists. As Leilani’s characters slowly learn to understand each other an themselves – an understanding that manifests itself in the protagonist’s many paintings – Luster forces the reader to (re)evaluate the purpose of art and perhaps more than anything, what it means to to see oneself as an artist.

This book pulled me in and kept me reading. And I’m so glad I did, because it’s stuck with me for weeks. If that’s not a good story, I don’t know what is.

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