On Reading “Luster” for the second time

January 31, 2022

Luster by Raven Leilani

I’ve read widely so far this year: some YA, a couple memoirs, even a holiday romance. But nothing that has blown me away—not in the sense that I held the book to my chest once I was finished, the way I have in the past.

When I finished reading Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King, a little disappointed compared to how I felt after fawning all over Writers & Lovers in 2020, I knew that what I read next needed to make me feel a specific way. I needed to read something I knew I would love. And so I looked over my bookshelf, and picked Luster off the shelf.

Luster follows a broke Black woman in her twenties who gets involved with a forty-something white man in an open marriage. She’s trying to make sense of her life while stumbling her way through poor decisions and rather unconventional relationships.

I took my time reading it this time, having raced through it the first time around. And I had missed so much—not the big moments, but the small pieces of magic. The way Leilani describes the mixing of Edie’s paint colors, so vivid I feel like I’m seeing the painting with my own eyes. Edie’s fixation with the plainness of Rebecca’s body: “the marbled flesh of her thighs, which, even without the assistance of clothes, appear to go all the way up to her neck, her depressing beige bra and high-waisted underwear with Wednesday on the back.” That we never find out for sure whom it was that was leaving Edie money on her nightstand.

Leilani pulled me right in, just like she had the first time.

“It is like I really need him. Because there are men who are an answer to a biological imperative, whom I chew and swallow, and there are men I hold in my mouth until they dissolve.”

I had this quote underlined from the first time around, and the next quote; a messy asterisk beside it.

“I’m an open book,” I say, thinking of all the men who have found it illegible. I made mistakes with these men. I dove for their legs as they tried to leave my house. I chased them down the hall with a bottle of Listerine, saying, I can be a beach read, I can get rid of all these clauses, please, I’ll just revise.”

This line, both underlined and noted with an asterisk, making it doubly special, Leilani’s writing lyrical but not pretentious—a difficult feat in my experience:

“It’s not that I want exactly this, to have a husband or home security system that, for the length of our marriage, never goes off. It’s that there are gray, anonymous hours like this. Hours when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void.”

In the time between reads I had forgotten how a line would come out of nowhere and shock me, reminding me that I’m reading a book rooted in sexuality:

“I get out of the car and wave as he drives away. As I climb the stairs to my apartment, I have already resolved to call out of work tomorrow and spend all night furiously masturbating to Top Chef.”

And again:

“Onboarding with Mike, his little fingers and junior human resources lingo as I cajole him out of his pants… Jake from IT again, because these computers are shit and he has the prettiest dick I’ve ever seen… Adam from Christian erotica coming on my face and I feel nothing.”

I recall with startling clarity how I felt the first I read Luster. I wrote in my journal at that time, “I loved this book so much, even though it made me cringe often. So glad my twenties are long behind me”, as though all the bad sex and poor decisions Edie made would cease to exist in her thirties and beyond.

I’d been reading so many great books around that time: The Vanishing Half and All Adults Here, Want, and Stray, each book inspiring me in its own way, each breaking something off inside of me that I was happy to part with. I have pulled each of these down from their various spots on my bookshelf so that I can read them all again. I know there exist people who don’t understand the drive to re-read a book, what with so many others out there yet to be discovered, but my reasoning is simple: The meaning of a book changes over time, but it’s not because of the book changes but because you change.

I am not the same person I was two years ago when I first read Luster—the pandemic made sure of that—and so my experience was different this time around. What I took away from the book, what stood out to me the most, how the word cock made me feel this time around were all different.

What I do now, is different.

Now, I scour the internet looking for ideas of what Leilani might be writing next and come up short, though perhaps my head hurts from pushing myself so hard these last two years (hasn’t everyone?) that I may have missed the hints. The novel is being developed for HBO, that I know, but I’m nearly desperate to know whether or not her fingers have been busy typing anything new. I type Leilani’s name into the search bar on the Publisher’s Marketplace website weekly, just in case I’ve missed the news of a new deal.

Now, I wonder what to read next.

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