Book review and synopsis for Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, A novel examining "woke" racism and privilege.
Such A Fun Age is about Emira, a 25-year-old black woman, who is working as a babysitter to raise Briar, a 3-year-old white girl. It’s a story that examines modern racism by depicting the fallout after Emira is hassled and accused of being a kidnapper when she takes Briar to the supermarket.
In Part I, Emira Tucker is 25 and works for Alix and Peter Chamberlain as a part-time babysitter, taking care of their young daughters Briar (3) and baby Catherine. Alix is a self-empowerment and career coach, while Peter is a newscaster. Emira is asked to take Briar to the supermarket late at night after the Chamberlain's house is egged as a result of a (arguably racist) comment that Peter made on the news.
Emira (who is black) gets hassled by a security guard after another customer suspects her of having kidnapped Briar. The incident gets tense until Emira calls Peter, who comes in to clear things up. Afterwards, Kelley Copeland (32, white male) approaches Emira to let her know he recorded the incident. Emira gets the video from him, but tells him she doesn't want to pursue anything and asks him to delete it. Following the incident, Alix feels bad and wants to get to know Emira better, while Emira decides she needs to find a new job. Meanwhile, Emira runs into Kelley again and they start dating.
In Part II, there's a flashback to Alix telling her friends about her parents becoming wealthy when she was in junior high. Her name was originally "Alex Murphy". They bought a huge, gaudy house. She started dating a guy (Kelley) and would write him letters. In one of them, she detailed when and where she wanted to lose her virginity to Kelley. The letter ends up in the hands of Robbie, a popular black kid in school, who teases her about it and jokingly shows up at her house with friends after Kelley and Alix have sex for the first time. In anger and embarrassment, Alix called the police. Robbie was arrested and had a small amount of cocaine on him. Kelley dumped Alix as a result and befriended Robbie. Alix changes her name to Alix and leaves the state for college.
Meanwhile Alix's curiosity about Emira keeps increasing and she invites Emira and her new boyfriend over for Thanksgiving when both their plans gets derailed due to the weather.
In Part III, Emira and Kelley show up for Thanksgiving. Alix and Kelley recognize each other. After that, Alix and Kelley both soon tell Emira about their version of events. Alix claims that Kelley invaded her privacy by distributing her letter. Alix also stalks Kelley online and discovers that he only dates black women. Alix warns Emira that Kelley is just using and fetishizing her.
Kelley meanwhile tells Emira that he never got the letter Alix is talking about. He also says how Alix has always had black people as help, including Alix's black nanny growing up. He tells Emira that she needs to quit, but Emira feels that Kelley is too presumptuous about understanding her point of view just because he had black friends.
In Part IV, Emira leaves her e-mail open at Alix's house. Alix sees it, finds the supermarket video and distributes it. Emira soon finds out and blames Kelley. They break up, and Alix offers Emira her sympathy. Alix also offers her a full time job as their nanny with benefits. Emira gratefully accepts.
Additionally, Alix offers to have Emira on Laney and Peter's show to do a segment about the video. Emira agrees, since it's a chance for her to tell her side of the story. However, on that day, Zara overhears Alix admit that she was the one who distributed the video. Emira goes on the show, but at the last minute on air, she tells Alix that she's not going to be working for her and that they should part ways.
In the end, Emira never speaks to Alix and Kelley again. We find out Kelley never did get the letter from Alix (it got jammed into Robbie's locker which was next to his). She goes to work full time at her typist position, and after five weeks is promoted to an administrative assistant.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid came out in late 2019 with some pretty solid buzz, but some mixed reviews. I’ve seen people who loved it, but others have had really lukewarm reactions. So, I was curious to see for myself, but it’s been low on my list of priorities.
Such A Fun Age is a breezy book that covers an interesting topic, “woke” racism. Racism coming from people who don’t consider themselves racist and very likely think of themselves as progressives is something that doesn’t get covered nearly as much or as thoroughly as it should.
I wanted to like this book, but I kept feeling like it didn’t push hard enough at the topics it’s exploring. It just seemed like there should be more insights to be glean from these situations and it suffers from other issues as well.
The novel is written with a twenty-something audience in mind. Our protagonist and her friends are at that distinct point in life where they’re just starting out in their careers and things like marriage or kids seems like distant speck in the future. Stylistically, the book is cool and chill, and the dialogue utilizes a lot of slang and pop culture references, such as Instagram and the like. Sometimes it (arguably) verged on trying too hard to be “current” and young, but the point is that it has a very specific audience it’s catering to.
I loved that this book was trying to tackle the topic of “woke” racism, and that is easily the strongest aspect of this story. There are plenty of people who consider themselves progressive that still act according to racist assumptions. Despite what the casual tone of this story would suggest, this is not an easy topic to tackle. Blatant racism is simpler, but woke racism often involves a lot of nuance. I wish Such A Fun Age would have pushed a little harder or offered more insights at times into these situations, but it definitely offers some worthwhile conversation-starters regardless.
Reid uses her story to make complex points in a subtle way. For example, at one point, one of Emira’s employer’s well-to-do black friends, Tamra, tries to relate to Emira by talking about her hair to Emira’s great discomfort. It’s a good example of why inter-sectionality matters. Tamra is black, but also of a higher socio-economic status than Emira. The two aren’t entirely able to relate and the pandering is uncomfortable. Reid is able to depict this in a straightforward manner.
The thing that I found extremely distracting, though, was how much Such A Fun Age felt like some type of weird wish fulfillment (or axe-grinding) for the author. Reid was a nanny for six years, and our main character Emira is a sitter. Apart from not knowing what she wants in life yet, Emira has everything going for her. Meanwhile, her employer Alix (and essentially the chief antagonist here) seems like a mess in every way other than socioeconomic status.
The book technically is told from both Emira and Alix’s points of view, but is so blatantly lopsided that it never feels that way. I’m someone who has a lot more in common with Emira than Alix, but the depiction of Alix feels so uncharitable and devoid of empathy that I found myself feeling bad for Alix.
Alix becomes obsessed with trying to impress Emira and getting to know her. Alix calls and texts her friends asking for help on what to say to Emira and to talk about how great Emira is, acting more like a besotted teenager than someone who is employing someone else for a service. Reid also repeatedly notes how uncool Alix is and how Alix is a few pounds too heavy. Alix is also a bad mother (despite having the capability to be better), and her career has stalled out. As a cherry on the top, Emira is also dating the handsome, tall man that once spurned Alix and who Alix is still infatuated with.
The whole thing was a bit much to be honest, and I kept getting the distinct feeling that Reid had some very specific people in mind when writing Alix. It felt a little like someone writing a fan fiction version of their own life. Alix is such a one-dimensional and unfortunate character that even when she gets her comeuppance, there’s no joy in it because she doesn’t feel real.
It’s especially unfortunate, because for me it detracted from the very legitimate points that Reid was making about race and a young black woman raising a white child. I loved when Reid brought up things like how employees providing benefits and career structure is so much more important and meaningful than trying to buddy up to your nanny. I wished she would have spent more time on that and less on beating Alix up like a very bad and very dead horse.
Despite being a main POV character, Alix does not get any type of emotional journey in this book, since she’s essentially a straw-man character that’s set up for Reid to poke fun at. By the time it gets to the part where it sexually degrades Alix by depicting a scene where she gets her hair done just so it bobs around as her husband takes her from behind, I was so disgusted that I stopped caring what happens to any of the characters.
Read it or Skip it?
I liked the premise of this book and was instantly drawn into it wanting to know what would happen next after the supermarket incident, but ended up disliking this book. There’s moments of insight buried in the text, but it gets lost in a lot of axe-grinding.
Modern racism, intersectionality and more nuanced versions of racism are all topics that are in desperate need of thorough exploration and more stories, but this book gets distracted by petty things like harping on Alix’s weight. It didn’t push hard enough at the important topics and instead spent all its time on a self-indulgent quest to show how cool and superior Emira was to Alix in every way.
Such A Fun Age is a fast read, so if you’re curious, you can probably get through it in a night or two or over a weekend. But I’m not going to be recommending it to anyone.
Average Published December 31, 2019
Page Count 320 pages
From the Publisher
Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living, with her confidence-driven brand, showing other women how to do the same. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains' toddler one night, walking the aisles of their local high-end supermarket. The store's security guard, seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make things right.
But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix's desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix's past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.