Rating 4 stars
I had Kiley Reid’s debut novel Such A Fun Age on my library wishlist but took it off again after I read some lukewarm reviews here in the blogosphere.
Then my employer decided to set up a reading scheme, that they’re calling The Big Read. It aims to encourage staff to think about different perspectives and think more critically about our work and our audiences. Our first book is Such A Fun Age, and we were each given a copy at the start of December. It seemed rude not to read it.
The story concerns Emira, a 25 year old black woman who is drifting a little in life, working as a transcriber and a babysitter, and Alix, one of Emira’s employers, a 33 year old mother of two. It explores the friendship groups of both women, shining a light on Black experience through Emira’s story as well as on the pressures on all women to be someone, to have purpose, to be fulfilled, all while looking good, through the stories and interactions of all the female characters. There’s also a story arc around the differing relationships between men and women, in particular men who want to appear as feminist and Black allies but whose actions are still underpinned by a certain level of chauvinism and white saviour behaviour.
It’s a book that got some hype. It was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. The cover is blazoned with praise, as is the front fly, and there are three pages of praise quotes. I’ve a friend who said that the hype is to be believed. I’ve a workmate who said that it’s good but a bit overegged. But what do I think?
The first chapter grabbed me. Emira and her friends were relatable, the situation Emira ends up in was reasonably believable, and the tension in the moment of conflict built steadily and was nerve jangling. Being in a scene that I can only imagine as an observer, and seeing it through Emira’s eyes as the person being accused of kidnapping a child because the child is white and she is black, and the grocery store a few blocks from the child’s home is in a wealthy neighbourhood, meant that I saw it differently.
Emira regularly babysits Briar, Alix’s eldest daughter. That night, she’s at a friend’s birthday party when Alix calls. An incident at home means she needs Briar out of the house for a while, until it’s resolved. Despite being a little drunk, despite wearing party clothes, Emira needs the money, so says yes. Her attire and her inebriation contribute to her being judged, but it’s mostly the colour of her skin that triggers the confrontation. A white man also shopping in the store films the incident on his phone and tries to step in, like a white saviour, to somehow protect Emira, who tells him she knows what she’s doing. It’s the first indication in the novel that white people, however well meaning, have no clue what Black experience is like.
After this gripping start, the novel settled into a groove, telling a story about Black experience in a white biased world, white guilt and white attempts to overcompensate that come across like fetishisation, and the universal experiences of being in your twenties, finding out who you are and what you want your life to be.
Things I liked: the pace of the story; Emira’s friendship group, particularly the dynamic between Emira and best friend Zara; Emira’s self-awareness and willingness to tutor Kelley, the man who filmed the grocery store incident, when he becomes her boyfriend, on how their lives are different; the creepiness of Kelley using the grocery store film to hit on Emira and later to attempt to browbeat her into doing something she’s not interested in doing (this was a mix of liked/didn’t like, it was so well done); the depiction of Briar, and how Reid conveyed her needs alongside the way Alix couldn’t cope with her but Emira could; seeing white privilege through Emira’s eyes and understanding why Emira finds it easier to accept that that’s just the way privileged white people are than to challenge one specific instance of it.
Things I didn’t like: Alix as a character, and the dynamic between her group of friends, which was too Condé Nast for me to relate to; the bossiness of Alix’s friend Tamra, a super organised school principal, that verged on caricature, although I did appreciate Zara’s categorisation of Tamra as an Uncle Tom type; the melodrama around Alix and Kelley that felt really stagey.
Here’s an example of who Alix is. She goes to visit Emira at her apartment, unannounced, taking her two children with her, even though she feels like she’s stepping into a dangerous world.
Alix liked taking the scooter instead of the stroller because leaving the former somewhere by accident didn’t mean losing thirteen hundred dollars (and she could potentially use it as a weapon).”
It would feel like comedy if it wasn’t so real, and shows that Reid is talking as much about class in this novel as she is about race. Alix is from a family that came into money, but she has shed her working class origins to really inhabit the middle class mindset. I can imagine a certain readership not liking her because they recognise things about themselves in her, things they don’t necessarily want to acknowledge. Myself included, to an extent.
As the novel approaches its conclusion, threads weave together, composure unravels, there’s an online exposure and a made-for-tv crisis in a bar. Before the novel was published, the screen rights were bought by Lena Waithe, who wrote the excellent Queen & Slim. A film version is in the pipeline, apparently.
And then there’s the twist in the tale. I found it a bit lame, as twists go. It’s just evidence of the lies we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better about a bad choice we made, the deliberate amnesia that says we’re not as awful as we are. It’s not quite the explanation I’d guessed. I’d imagined more of a jock prank than an accident taken advantage of. But there are clues about what happened in high school with Alix and Kelley, as well as Alix’s fixation on Kelley into adulthood.
Such A Fun Age is a readable book. I read most of it during a 5 hour wait for something and it successfully distracted me. It’s well written, a fine debut, but I don’t think it will stick with me in the way something like Sing, Unburied, Sing has. Very different books, I know, trying to do different things. There’s a conflict, sometimes, as a reader, between reading the author’s choice of what their book is and wanting something different. I think that the way this book came to me made me expect something different, but also as I read it, I wanted something different from it, too.
I loved Emira, and felt like Reid was holding back on her as a character, only fully fleshing her out right at the end. I wanted more of Emira and to know more about her family. I wanted more about Zara, too. Reflecting on this, I think I wanted Reid to educate me more about their lives, when that’s not the job she set out to do as an author. I absolutely loved the ending of Emira and Alix’s story, though. Personally, I’d have ended the book there.