Beginner's Lust: EW reviews the buzzy debut of the summer.

By Leah Greenblatt
July 31, 2020 at 01:00 PM EDT

“The first time we have sex, we are both fully clothed, at our desks during working hours, bathed in blue computer light.” Those are Luster’s opening lines, and the first cue that its unsparing narrator may be looking for love, or something not quite like it, in all the wrong places.

Though poor choices, of course, are the prerogative — if not the main purpose — of a misspent youth. And at 23, Edie hardly sees an adulthood to look forward to: Her Bushwick apartment is a grim haven for wayward mice, her job in publishing is both unchallenging and underpaid, and the art career she vaguely dreams of no more likely than the prospect of a genuine friend.

And so she tends to lean on sex with co-workers, or the men she meets online — men like Eric, a married white archivist twice her age with a predilection for whiskey and punching her in the face. So how does Edie end up living under the same roof as his wife and adopted daughter, the only other girl in their small New Jersey town who seems to share her skin tone?

Luster is Raven Leilani’s long-form debut, and that newness sometimes shows; after a wildly beguiling start, the novel telescopes inward, often forsaking narrative momentum for mood and color. Sentence by sentence, though, she’s also a phenomenal writer, her dense, dazzling paragraphs shot through with self-effacing wit and psychological insight.

By almost any metric, Edie is a mess: damaged, adrift, a maestro of self-sabotage. You want to shake her sometimes, or just wrap her in a warm blanket and tell her to go home. But Leilani also makes her pain specific and real — not as a symbol or statistic, but as a young woman in the world, trying hard to solve the mystery of herself.  B+

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