A novel from an exciting new voice, “Such a Fun Age” (G.P. Putnam) is a story about race, motherhood and privilege, set around a young black babysitter, her well-meaning employer and an unexpected connection that threatens to undo them both. The first chapter could suggest any number of genres: a legal thriller, police procedural, a bleakly non-fictional work of journalism on race relations in 21st-century America or a collection of essays. What author Kiley Reid delivers, however, is a compelling indictment of humans, and how we interact with ourselves and each other. Charming, challenging, and so caustically humorous it’s hard to put down.
A blogger/inspirational speaker/lifestyle influencer who prides herself on her advocacy for modern women, Alix Chamberlain is not happy about moving from NYC to Philadelphia for her husband’s job as a TV newscaster. With no friends or relatives around to lend a hand with her active two-year-old, Briar, and baby, Catherine, she’ll never get anywhere on the book she’s writing unless she hires a sitter. She hits the jackpot when she finds 25-year-old graduate student Emira Tucker. Family and friends expect Emira to pursue a career, but she’s about to lose her parents’ health insurance, and she’s content with babysitting and typing transcripts for the Green party (it’s September 2015, a year ahead of the U.S. election). And, Briar is Emira’s “favorite little human.”
This story starts when a rock is thrown through Alix’s window and she does not want Briar to see the police come into their home. In a rush, she calls Emira – who is out partying – with an offer of double pay to take Briar for a couple of hours. Emira jumps at the chance and takes Briar out of the house while the glass is cleaned up and the police are called. Emira takes Briar to a high-end “super white” grocery store where the toddler loves to look at the tea bags and nuts. The scenario that follows is certainly plausible: the black babysitter and blonde little girl meet a zealous security guard. Emira is accused of kidnapping the toddler and her exchange with the security officer is caught on camera by a patron. Another customer repeatedly says she had a bad feeling when she eyed the woman and child together. Emira is allowed to leave the store (totally humiliated) only after the Briar’s father arrives and explains that she is the babysitter. A bystander and college student, Kelley Copeland, films the racism in action while giving out unsolicited legal advice to Emira, his words drowned out over the screams of a frightened child. Once the matter is settled (insofar as it can be in one night), Kelley tries and fails to convince Emira that justice would be served by handing the video to a news station.
As the story takes us into the new year, Kelley turns out to have a past that’s linked to Emira. And in Reid’s writing, the past is always near and often revisited. She rolls the narrative back over itself – to the reason the Chamberlains had called Emira that night; to moments of meeting and departure; to the other side of a door just before it was opened; most crucially, to the origin story of Alix Chamberlain.
The central relationship in the novel is between Alix and Emira; a mixed up mess of business, race, class and jealousy. Alix desperately wants to become an influence in her babysitter’s life. She constantly looks at Emira’s phone to learn what music she listens to and who she’s been dating, using the information to make a list of potential conversation topics. She tries to entice Emira into intimate chats over bottles of wine.
The author masterfully embodies the mind of a white woman who is convinced of her own good intentions. Alix’s inner monologue reveals how consumed she is with the concern that Emira is unable to see how progressive she is in her everyday life. “Alix fantasized about Emira discovering things about her that shaped what Alix saw as the truest version of herself,” Reid writes. “Like the fact that one of Alix’s closest friends was also black. That Alix’s new and favorite shoes were from Payless, and only cost eighteen dollars. That Alix had read everything that Toni Morrison had ever written.” Alix becomes obsessed with showcasing these signs of her political correctness. She longs to be seen as Emira’s family, but this desire has more to do with resolving her own identity struggles than with actually knowing or helping the young woman who she employs.
Emira is upset about the racial profiling incident at the market, but it’s only one of many worries in her life. A college graduate with an English degree, she is still adrift while her friends excel. Her concern over being able to afford a vacation to Mexico a year in the future takes up a fair amount of her mental energy. She stresses daily over the reality that “when she didn’t work, she didn’t get paid.” While her friends are receiving promotions, enjoying paid vacation days, and advancing into adulthood, Emira is struggling with a deep sense of being left behind.
The differences between Emira and Alix are blatant. Alix, who is desperate for others to see her as an ally, tries hard to prove that she cares for the black people in her life. It becomes clear that Alix’s care is motivated by narcissism.
Kelley, the white student and video recorder, eventually becomes Emira’s boyfriend. (He also happens to be Alix’s high school sweetheart – and things ended badly between the two.) He makes a point of dating ambitious “women of color,” and hands out unsolicited advice about how Emira should deal with racism. He obviously cares for her, but he never seems to fully understand what she experiences. Kelley frequently gets worked up over the night at the grocery store; he constantly encourages Emira to release the video and get the security guard fired. Kelly’s outrage over the incident isn’t what Emira wants. “You get real fired up when we talk about that night at Market Depot. But I don’t need you to be mad that it happened,” she tells him after an argument. “I need you to be mad that it just like … happens.”
Despite the discomfort it causes, “Such a Fun Age” is actually pretty funny. Reid is bighearted as she shows the complications that come with relationships and interactions between employers and employees, lovers and friends – especially through the lens of race. She isn’t criticizing, but she also doesn’t pardon anyone of their actions. Self-awareness seems to be the book’s main lesson for both its characters and its readers.
Since this book is fairly new, it is full of social commentary that is germane to today. The story explores transactional relationships, the meaning of “family,” white feminism, parenthood, what success looks like and so much more. I loved how the character of Alix was written (even though I didn’t much care for Alix herself) because she challenges readers, especially white readers, to question their motives when helping others. She makes readers ask, “Do the means justify the ends?” She seems to me a perfect example of the “white savior complex” without falling into that stereotype completely, showing how this complex could be in anyone and prompting readers to think about decisions when they involve others.
The relationship between Emira and Briar is enjoyable, too. Emira senses that Alix seems to favor her younger daughter, who is a quiet and mild, whereas Briar is a boisterous, inquisitive toddler who often blurts out inappropriate words. Even though Emira knows it is not her job to raise Briar, she wants the child to know that she matters. This was a parallel between Alix’s foundation of raising women up and standing up for themselves but ignoring her daughter almost completely because of her questioning and odd nature. No one in the book is bad or evil, but rather people whose lives are all entwined in a weird way and it’s the reader’s job to figure out, “OK, how did we get here? Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? Is this justifiable?” I appreciate authors who never provide a solution because it leaves a lot of room for interpretation and promotes great discussion, which appears to be Reid’s goal. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves contemporary adult fiction, and examining closely American social issues. “Such a Fun Age” marks the debut of a serious new talent.