“Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid
G.P. Putnam’s Sons; 320 pages; 2017, reissued 2019
Reviewed by Melissa McKeown
McKeown is a circulation specialist at the Christiansburg branch of the Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library, and a Christiansburg resident.
Taking a somewhat satirical look at issues of race, class and privilege, Kiley Reid has generated quite a buzz with her debut novel, “Such a Fun Age.” Having actress Reese Witherspoon name “Such a Fun Age” the January 2020 selection for her well-known book club — which has brought attention to such hits as Delia Owens’s “Where the Crawdads Sing” and Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” — certainly hasn’t hurt the book’s popularity.
Through alternating third-person perspectives, “Such a Fun Age” shows the connection between two women, Alix Chamberlain and Emira Tucker. Alix, a 30-something wealthy white woman with two young children and a penchant for letter writing, has made a name for herself as a lifestyle influencer. In contrast, Emira is a single black woman in her mid-20s, juggling two part-time jobs — including one as a babysitter for Alix’s 2-year-old daughter, Briar — as she questions what she wants to do with her life.
A disturbing encounter for Emira early in the book serves as the story’s catalyst. During an impromptu late-night babysitting gig, she is harassed at a local upscale grocery store when a white security guard accuses her of kidnapping young Briar. Forced to call Briar’s father to “rescue” her from the situation, Emira discovers the incident is captured on video by a white bystander — a man named Kelley — who she begs to delete the footage.
While Emira would love nothing more than to move on from this embarrassing experience, Alix sees it as an eye-opener. Realizing she knows very little about her babysitter, she is determined to get to know Emira better — and her growing interest begins to border on obsession.
Things become even more complicated when the link between Alix and Kelley — who Emira has begun dating — is discovered. The long-ago relationship (and a significant event) between the two has left a lasting impact on Alix and may shed some light on why she behaves the way she does toward Emira.
When the video of the grocery store incident is leaked, there are significant ramifications for all the characters involved. The fallout leads to a conclusion that, while not completely satisfying, seems appropriate.
What I found most striking throughout the novel was the incessant (and exhausting) need for white characters to prove that they are not racist — that they are, in fact, good people. But in doing so, they become fixated on race. Alix in particular seems to see Emira only as a black woman, not as an individual. Meanwhile, Emira doesn’t consider Alix an ally. Instead, the main thing keeping her in Alix’s employ is Emira’s incredible fondness for Briar.
Throughout the novel, I found myself curious to know the truth — the truth about Alix’s relationship with Kelley, the truth about the video leak — and what that truth meant for the characters. It seemed fairly obvious that no one was completely free from blame, but I did wonder who would turn out to be the most loathsome. In the end, the answer was revealed — though it would be interesting to know whether other readers draw the same conclusion.
Overall, I found “Such a Fun Age” to be a quick, compulsive read. While filled with unlikable characters and uncomfortable situations, I recommend it as an entertaining, yet incisive, commentary on what it means to be “woke.”