I’ve been hearing great things about Such a Fun Age, the debut novel from Kiley Reid, since it came out nearly a year ago. So with that in mind, I was excited to choose it as my book club‘s December read. With themes of racism, white saviorism, and class struggles, it felt like a timely and thought-provoking book.
Such a Fun Age starts with Emira, a 25-year-old who’s working as a babysitter for a wealthy family in Philadelphia. But Emira is black, and the family is white, and when she’s watching 3-year-old Briar one evening, Emira is accused of kidnapping. It’s a racist incident that thankfully doesn’t end badly, but it sets in motion a series of events and relationship dynamics that home in on white saviors and the racism they don’t see in themselves.
Alix, the woman Emira works for, is sorry about the incident, and starts trying too hard to get to know her babysitter. Meanwhile, Emira meets and eventually starts dating Kelley, a white guy who witnessed and filmed the incident. But there are more connections than anyone realized, and it turns into white people trying to protect Emira from other white people… while not actually recognizing their own problematic behavior.
From the beginning, Such a Fun Age is a quick and easy read, despite some of its themes. It’s one of those books you can sit down to read and get through it in one or two sittings. Part of this is how conversation-driven it is, but it’s also down to the breezy observations the characters make.
Don’t get me wrong, though: Such a Fun Age certainly dives into deeper themes. Perhaps the obvious one is racial tensions. We get to see myriad forms of racism, from the obvious (grocery store cop accusing black woman of kidnapping white toddler) to the more inconspicuous (white man dating black woman… or rather, only dating black women). In this novel, we see how well-meaning white people actually have problematic behaviors, and it’s not always noticeable until we start to see patterns emerge.
Much of the struggle here is in white saviors who think they’re helping Emira. But they try too hard, push her too much, and act fake around her. They don’t recognize what they’re doing, but they call out other white people for doing similar things. In reading this, I saw how there are many ways to be racist and racially insensitive, and just because you’re not racist in one way doesn’t mean you’re not racist in another way. The characters here – namely, Alix and Kelley – have major blind spots in regards to their own actions.
While racism is a major theme in Such a Fun Age, an equally relevant issue is class differences. Emira is 25 and making only $16 per hour at her part-time babysitting gig; as such, she’s living paycheck to paycheck. This is in contrast to her friends, who all have stable jobs and/or parents who are wealthy enough to help them out. And it’s in major contrast to the family she babysits for, who can afford to live in a three-story home in a nice neighborhood and employ a babysitter for 21+ hours a week and spend money on expensive wine. Notably, it seems that the wealthier characters are rather uncomfortable with their wealth and downplay it, at least when talking to Emira.
Going on a slight tangent – sorry; bear with me or just skip to the next paragraph! – rich people’s discomfort with money is something I’ve noticed in my own life. I’ve spent most of my life fairly poor, and I’m totally open about talking about it. And yet family and friends I’ve had who are richer seem uncomfortable talking about money – at least with me, the poor person. Do they feel guilty? Do rich people just not like talking about their wealth and how they spend money? Would I behave the same way if I became wealthier? While I can’t necessarily answer these questions, they are things I’ve observed, both in real life and in Such a Fun Age.
In many ways, Such a Fun Age is a great book for starting conversations and getting the mind working. I’m a white woman; how have I been problematic? Do I see myself in Alix, or Kelley, or any of the other white characters? What can I learn from their misbehavior? How can I be more cognizant and more antiracist in the future?
However, for all the good in Such a Fun Age, it is also a frustrating book. On the one hand, it doesn’t lead to the the impactful ending it seemed to be building up for. The losers don’t know they’ve lost; in fact, they probably haven’t lost at all. And the winners don’t really win, either.
Emira starts off as a very directionless character, and she’s both indecisive and overly passive. At first, I found her to be relatable in some ways. Being 25 is hard, especially when you don’t have a great job yet and aren’t really sure what you want to do with your life. Over time, she seemed like she was making progress on that front. Unfortunately, by the end, I just didn’t see any growth in her. I didn’t see much – if any – change in her internally, nor in her circumstances. Her arc felt too flat to even be an arc.
Likewise, I didn’t feel that Alix or Kelley evolved. They started off problematic, they did bad things and accused each other of bad things, but did they learn anything in the end? Not really. Not at all, even.
For such a character-driven book, it was disappointing to watch the three main characters make essentially no progress over the course of the story. They were all rather unlikable and unable to evolve as people.
(The only character I really loved was Briar… the toddler. She has some excellent lines, is funny, and is the brightest part about the novel. While she also doesn’t evolve much in the book, she’s forgiven, because she’s only three.)
Another thing that bothered me is how Alix and Emira are characterized. One would think that Emira would be the main protagonist of the story; she should have been. But oddly enough, the way Alix is written feels much more intimate, internal, and complete. There is more depth and background with her, making her feel like the main character. That was an odd choice, especially for a book like this. I wish Emira had been a more interesting and nuanced character, that she’d had more of an arc, and that she was written as the main protagonist instead of Alix.
Although Such a Fun Age is a thought-provoking book sure to start conversations, as a story it’s not as compelling. No one in my book club loved it, and although we all agreed that it had valuable social commentary and was a quick read, none of us felt it went far enough. In the end, it fell flat for us.
That said, I am still interested in reading more from Kiley Reid. Her writing style and themes are good; I just hope her next story feels more compelling.
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