I must admit that I’ve always been a bit baffled by the notion that characters have to be relatable. I hear this as a common critique. The characters aren’t relatable. And yes, it’s nice when you can relate to characters on a personal level, that’s not usually why I read stories. I read stories to learn about worlds and lived experiences that I know nothing about. To expand my scope and understanding of the world beyond my own lived experiences. So for me, characters being relatable is never a priority. Which brings me to today’s daily helping – Luster by Raven Leilani.
Luster is a story about a young Black woman who is having an affair with an older white man. His wife has begrudgingly indulged his desire for an open marriage, but when the young girlfriend suddenly finds herself without a job or home, she is invited into their home where she is given the space to develop her talents as an artist. She also becomes a de facto mentor to the couple’s adopted Black daughter. There’s a lot more going on within the pages of this book, and the relationships are all very complex and layered. And given that there’s no way for this story to end with everyone getting what they want, the last half of the book reads like watching a train wreck happen in slow motion. And it was riveting.
I should also note that I loved and was fascinated by all four of the main characters. They were each deeply flawed and complicated individuals, and I felt for each of them. But I couldn’t relate to them. All four of them made decisions and went in directions that were baffling to me, and the circumstances of their lives were all completely different to mine. But I loved it. I didn’t have to relate to them to have empathy for them. To feel their struggles on a visceral level. To be invested in their fates and to want to know where the story was going to ultimately take them.
That being said, perhaps I’m misinterpreting what people mean by relatable. Maybe the very act of emphasizing with them is enough. Or maybe it’s not the specific circumstances but the universal struggles that make them relatable. Who knows? What I do know is that Luster is a book with fascinating characters and a brilliant style of prose. And maybe whether or not I related to its characters is beside the point.
Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!