My Rating: ★★★★☆ (4.5 stars)
It’s rare to find a novel that can strike a balance between comic lightness and depth of insight, especially one that tackles weighty issues like race and class. Reid, however, achieves that elusive balance effortlessly in her newest book, Such a Fun Age. Here, Reid’s singular contribution is her comic portrayal of the kind of racism perpetuated not through violence, name-calling, or structural snubbing (as we often see in the media), but through an excess of unexamined good intentions. She sheds light on a distinctly liberal brand of racism that can be more pernicious for its lack of visibility, and in doing so, she reconfigures the outdated dichotomous notion of “conservatives are racist” / “liberals can’t be racist” into a spectrum where anyone without sufficient self-awareness—regardless of ideological affiliation—can be guilty of racial prejudice.
The book opens at Market Depot, a “rich people grocery store” in Philadelphia, where Emira, a 25-year-old black woman, is accused of kidnapping her charge by a middle-aged white woman and a security guard. Emira, of course, is just doing her job, albeit at a rather inconvenient hour. Her employers, the Chamberlains, had called late at night to ask her to watch over their daughter as they sorted out a domestic emergency. She tells the guard this, but he still doesn’t believe her, so out of fear and anger, she calls Mr. Chamberlain. “He’s an old white guy so I’m sure everyone will feel better,” she says.
True enough, when Mr. Chamberlain arrives, everything is sorted out. He even offers to help Emira press charges, especially since a sympathetic shopper was able to capture the entire incident on video. Emira declines for a surprisingly prosaic yet understandable reason: She’s embarrassed of being a babysitter, which she doesn’t consider “a real job”, and she doesn’t want the internet—or worse, her parents—to know.
With that, then, it seems like the incident is put to rest. But it also sets in motion a series of events where two white, privileged people vie for Emira’s attention under the mistaken assumption that her approval would not only absolve them of the collective (white) guilt from the Market Depot incident, but would also cement their belief of themselves as progressive—and would furthermore demonstrate to all other progressives that they were the most progressive of them all. The irony, of course, is that the harder they try to win Emira over, the more blatant the racism becomes.
That being said, you’d expect Reid’s white characters to be monsters, but I was surprised to find them sympathetic. This is especially true of Alix Chamberlain, Emira’s employer, whom Reid writes with a tender, exasperated fondness. Alix is a white woman in her mid-thirties who’s something of an influencer. On one hand, she’s the quintessential product of white feminism and late capitalism: She’s oblivious to how her privilege allowed her to build a small business, and she unironically appropriates pop feminist slogans as part of her “brand”. But, on the other hand, Alix also works hard, believes in what she’s doing, and tries her best to be a good wife, mother, friend, and employer. She also wants to make it up to Emira for the Market Depot incident by trying to be friends with her:
Alix fantasized about Emira discovering things about her that shaped what Alix saw as the truest version of herself. 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 often unsuccessfully tried to drop these bits of information, but tomorrow, if things went Alix’s way, Emira could see all this in person.
Alix’s efforts are cringeworthy—especially in the way she tries to get to know Emira by snooping through her messages—but her earnestness and desperation to please is disarmingly relatable. Still, this isn’t enough to make up for her befriending Emira by blithely ignoring the racial and class difference between them. This presumption of equality, along with Alix’s sudden over-friendliness and over-generosity, makes Emira uncomfortable and even more reluctant to be close to Alix.
On the other hand, Kelley, the grocery shopper who caught the incident on video for Emira, is the other person vying for Emira’s attention. He later becomes Emira’s boyfriend, despite Emira knowing that all his friends are black, and that all his ex-girlfriends were also black. So despite Kelley’s genuine affection for Emira, I can’t shake off the nagging suspicion that he likes her because Emira is black, and not because she’s Emira. We never get Kelley’s perspective, though, so that issue remains unresolved.
Later on, in a moment of coincidence that strains belief, the lives of Emira, Kelley, and Alix intersect in possibly the most awkward dinner in history. At this point, I can’t say more without giving the rest of the plot away, but from there onwards, Alix and Kelley try to out-do each other in protecting Emira from what they perceive to be the exploitation of the other. This is my only quibble with the book: the coincidence of Alix and Kelley meeting each other and knowing each other before they knew Emira felt too contrived, perhaps even unnecessary. But that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the story, and the final confrontation between Emira and Alix was truly magnificent.
In sum, Such a Fun Age is a compulsively readable book that tackles a lot of timely issues—like the intersection of race, class, and gender; the anxiety that job insecurity generates in young adults; the perils and rewards of emotional labor; and even the necessity of close female friendships—with nuance, subtlety, and humor. It’s the kind of book that keeps you thinking long after you’ve finished it, and that one that’ll yield insights even after several rereads. (This is especially true for me, since Alix’s well-meaning gestures had me reflecting on my own.)*
In short: Believe the hype. It’s well-deserved. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
* A caveat: I’m not American and I don’t live in America, so I might never truly understand the gravity of racial prejudice there. However, Reid’s depiction of how the intersections of gender, race, and class shape everyday social interactions is definitely universal. As an upper-middle-class Chinese-Filipino woman living in the Philippines who studied in a liberal university, I’ve often had to grapple with being a privileged minority, so I can (uncomfortably) relate to Alix’s fumbling attempts to establish connections across structural differences. It made me think a lot about how my own over-accommodations can be construed as a form of prejudice. I think this uncomfortable soul-searching is a testament to the impact of the book on me.
Christensen, L. (2019, December 31). When it comes to race, how progressive are the progressives? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/31/books/review/such-a-fun-age-kiley-reid.html?searchResultPosition=2
Grady, C. (2020, January 8). In Such a Fun Age, everyone wants the black girl’s attention, but she just wants a real job. Vox. https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/1/8/21055681/such-a-fun-age-kiley-reid-review
Reading Women Podcast. (2020, February 12). Interview | Kiley Reid. https://www.readingwomenpodcast.com/blog/interview-with-kiley-reid
Find me on Goodreads! | Read from February 15-22, 2020