Tag Archives: Manhattan

Luster, Raven Leilani

Got wind of this while searching for some other book I’d jotted down, and certainly glad it came into my frame.  Leilani writes in nearly stream-of-consciousness style (not usually a favorite) and her central character is about as far from my own reality as could be, far enough that I feel self-conscious even writing about it; I so am not the droid she is writing for.  The language is clear and strong enough though, the observations numerous and illuminating, the plot points so unexpected yet credible, that it was difficult to put the book down, even when my eyes were shouting “time, Gentlemen.”

Edie’s background is inner-city poverty, drugs, abuse and abandonment (having read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc‘s Random Family is a helpful frame of reference), and her present is aspiring young info-worker with a hunger for casual sex and a well-justified case of imposter syndrome.  When an accumulation of excesses results in loss of both job and housing, she is drawn to peep in on her older, married lover in the comparative wilds of New Jersey, only to be caught out by his wife.  And there the fun (for reader, not characters) begins.  With maneuvers that keep everyone on their toes, the author insinuates Edie into the not-so-happy couple’s life, causing all to reconsider their presumptions and themmselves.

Leilani is very good at holding back information – hooking us into the story before she makes clear Edie is Black, and well into the family before Edie or we learn they have an adopted daughter – also Black – and even father into her web before we learn that Edie is an aspiring artist, and quite talented judging by the offhand way in which she creates credible representational paintings on a shoestring.  All of which helps to shift her lover, Eric, from center focus at the beginning to near-total irrelevance by the end, while her art, female-ness  and Blackness do just the opposite.  An apt comment on the perils of defining oneself by others, and a very contemporary critique of the cumulative effect of centuries of male-centric culture and storytelling.    

Straddling the line between academic/literate writing exercise and popular fiction, this is a primarily a social drama, certainly not a romance (though it deals with the ideas of romance and entanglement quite lucidly) and brings along more than a hint of comedy between the lines. Above all it is idiosyncratically entertaining at the same time that it pulls the heartstrings. One deeply wishes for Edie to overcome the boulders she drags around behind her, and even though the ending is not pat, we close the covers thinking that maybe, just maybe, she is on her way to doing that.

Clever and surprising, Luster is right on point for today; a home-run.

City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert

Most famous perhaps for her new age-y self-help memoir Eat, Pray Love, Gilbert is also and initially a novelist and this, her latest, is no slouch.  Substantial at 465 pages, it covers the mid-Twentieth Century through the life of upstate New York ingenue Vivian Morris, who receives an education and much more once she relocates to the city of the same name.  Sex and alcohol fuel much of the raucous early going, till the story abruptly shifts locale and tone around page 300. Disconcerting, that; and a serious disappointment to this reader, until a few chapters later when the narrative returns to its previous location and regains some (but only some) of its attitude.  From there the tale matures along with its protagonist, moving from girlish dalliances to womanly relationships and thoughts.

Which may be the author’s point.  While the title seems for a time to refer to the young women of the early chapters, and later to a play of the same name which becomes prominent for a while, it becomes ultimately a shorthand for all the different relationships between women which sustain these characters and the few social arrangements which care for and value them – the men in Gilbert’s telling being almost universally disappointing to the women, and often just as much so to themselves.  Her one male exception is introduced very near the end, a terribly-damaged creature with a heart of gold, who is, tellingly, an even greater disappointment to himself than any of those who preceded. 

Another indication: the two wronged women who get tossed out of Vivian’s life are both sorely missed and the reader spends the rest of the novel hoping they will be brought back for some dramatic rapprochement.  On the other hand, the one male who drops out is not missed in the least, despite being her close relative and a tragic victim of greater events.

Overall, and thanks almost exclusively to the quirky women Vivian meets in the big city, one comes away with the impression of a life lived off the beaten track and outside the generally accepted definitions of success and happiness, yet more successful and more satisfying at its end than many which better fit the traditional definitions.  A theme well in keeping with Gilbert’s other writings and a quite satisfying ending to a charming journey.

(BTW, the above description of Eat Pray Love is not meant to put it down. In addition to being on-trend, it is also deeply felt, thoroughly entertaining and insightful.  I read it some 13 years ago with under-liner in hand and closed the book feeling more optimistic about my own life than I had in ages.  Which is one reason I picked up City of Girls, though a reading of Gilbert’s 2000 first-novel, Stern Men, during the intervening years was also instrumental.  Either way, I am glad I did, and ready to read more of this author any time.)

(Illustration by Eleanor Davis for N. Y. Times review)