Many novels about race in America take a toll on a reader. That doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t endure that toll, especially privileged white readers, but sometimes that endurance can become performative. One can imagine Alix Chamberlain, the wealthy white character in Kiley Reid’s debut novel “Such a Fun Age,” sitting down with Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys,” for example, determined to “understand.”
Alix is a blogger and influencer whose epistolary campaign titled “LetHer Speak” has landed her a book deal. “On thick, textured stationery and with dreamy cursive handwriting, Alix asked nicely for the things she wanted, and it became a rare occurrence when she didn’t receive them,” the narrator explains. But, despite appearances, Alix’s life is not entirely perfect. For starters, she hates living in Philadelphia. Her family has moved there for husband Peter’s job as a TV newscaster, so Alix must find a way to make a life for herself and their two little girls, toddler Briar and baby Catherine. Her first step: finding a babysitter.
Enter Emira Tucker, currently experiencing a quarter-life crisis. A college graduate, African American Emira has a group of best friends who have begun their journeys toward career satisfaction and success. Meanwhile, Emira will soon lose access to her parents’ health insurance and has no idea what she wants to do with her life. A part-time babysitting gig will at least help her pay the rent.
“Sometimes, when she was particularly broke, Emira convinced herself that if she had a real job, a nine-to-five position with benefits and decent pay, then the rest of her life would start to resemble adulthood as well,” Reid writes. “She’d do things like make her bed in the morning, and she’d learn to start liking coffee.”
From this simple premise Reid constructs a plot so beautifully intricate and real and fascinating that readers will forget it’s also full of tough questions about race, class and identity. While Alix transfixes an auditorium of her peers with her decision to nurse her baby onstage, Emira has to cope with a security guard who accuses her of kidnapping Briar. The videotaped fallout from that incident will eventually ignite a powder keg that changes both women’s lives. Toggling between the perspectives of Emira and Alix is like marrying two very different novels, yet Reid seamlessly pulls off the union.
Meanwhile, she consistently challenges readers’ expectations. Emira and Alix, along with their friends (there’s a particularly well-drawn star turn by Peter’s slightly tacky but supremely kind co-anchor) must live with the results of their actions. For Alix, that means facing past misdeeds, but it also means facing the future consequences of her parenting choices. Emira does not function as some kind of tool to point Alix toward a path of racial equality. Instead, Emira has her own evolving existential issues that she weathers while bearing witness to the deeper, scarier side of her employer’s need for child care - one that challenges notions about why we hire others to serve us.
With this entertaining novel, Reid subverts our notions of what it means to write about race and class in America, not to mention what it means to write about love. In short, it’s a great way to kick off 2020.