Published by Bloomsbury, December 2019 | Fiction, Women
The breezy dialogue of Such a Fun Age adds a lightness to this page-turner that belies the complexity of the themes debut novelist Kiley Reid so deftly explores.
It also makes the opening sequence all the more unsettling.
Emira, a baby-sitter in her mid-20s, has taken her three-year-old charge to the local supermarket to kill time. But the college graduate’s sweet banter with the toddler is suddenly interrupted when the store’s bigoted security guard accuses Emira, who is black, of kidnapping the white child.
The heated, almost farcical, exchange that follows as Emira swallows her humiliation and stands her ground, is all captured on video on a phone whipped out by another concerned shopper, a white man named Kelley.
This showdown sets off an enthralling chain of events as the toddler’s mother Alix – a wealthy, white blogger and female empowerment “influencer” in her 30s – resolves to make it up to her baby-sitter for the dreadful supermarket incident.
And it’s this plot that Reid so artfully deploys to satirise the way privileged white people often cannot see that what they believe are good intentions are anything but.
Alix's awkward efforts to befriend her baby-sitter soon spirals into an all-consuming obsession. At its comical zenith, she takes furtive peeks at Emira’s phone to glean more about her social life (often needing to Google her messages to decode the younger woman’s banter with her besties), airily offers overgenerous gifts of expensive wine and foods and invites the bemused college graduate to her family Thanksgiving lunch.
But it becomes clear that Alix’s fascination with Emira is painfully self-serving.
At the surface, she doesn’t want her baby-sitter to quit. But the reality is that she's desperate for the younger woman's acknowledgment of what she sees as her socially progressive attitudes. (At one point we even hear Alix congratulating herself on how many African Americans she would have at her Thanksgiving dining table, which she sees as proof of just how racially inclusive she is).
Alix’s compulsion in turn makes her blind to any real sense of Emira or her troubles – like the fact that beneath the young woman’s apparent nonchalant, witty personality, she is quietly panicking about her aimless career trajectory, dismal finances and the fact she’s about to be kicked off her parents health insurance.
As Reid skilfully navigates between the two women’s alternating perspectives, we learn that Emira is not naive about Alix’s prejudices but, as a trait she’s seen too many times among privileged white families, she has learnt to roll with it.
The plot thickens as Emira starts dating Kelley, the white guy who filmed the supermarket fracas, throwing up a whole new set of complexities around inter-racial relationships as a similarly disconcerting quixotic earnestness creeps into Kelley’s persona.
As Kelley and Alix vie for Emira’s attention, each speaking about her with a sense of ownership, their relationships with Emira becomes a battleground through which each intends to prove their racial virtue - leading to some wonderful plot twists.
One of the novel’s deep ironies is that while the white characters’ fixations on their own progressiveness means they constantly fret over what black people think of them, the black characters are busy getting on with their lives, nurturing friendships and looking out for each other.
Beyond her core exploration of race relations, Reid interweaves astute musings on other everyday complexities, including friendships, the transition to adulthood, adjustments to motherhood, how childhood embarrassments can shape prejudices, and generational anxieties - all captured so perfectly through the alternating language of toddlers, relevance-seeking mums and angsty millennials and the often frustrating divide between them all.
It’s on full display as we listen in on the mirrored tribulations in the chatty catchups between Alix’s three girlfriends and the very different perspectives of Emira’s three girlfriends.
The novel’s deft exposure of everyday biases, that so often we don’t even realise, makes Such a Fun Age an essential read.
I love this book and highly recommend it. Yes there will be varying views on the angles of racism and wokeness, but I think the messiness that ensues is a refreshing eye-opener for our contemporary times.