Such A Fun Age tells the story of a young black woman named Emira, who works as a babysitter for Alix, a feminist blogger. After an incident in Alix’s house, Emira is called and begged to occupy Alix’s daughter, Briar, while the police come to deal with the situation. Despite being out for her friend’s birthday, Emira agrees. She takes Briar to a local supermarket to keep her entertained and it is here that she is accused of kidnapping by a customer and a security guard and is not allowed to leave the store. Although the confrontation is eventually cleared up, it is the spark for the main events of the story.
One of my favourite aspects of this book is the complex yet remarkable relationships between the characters. Alix is desperate to be best friends with Emira whilst Emira loves Briar but isn’t sure if she is wasting her life as a babysitter. Meanwhile, a man named Kelley comes onto the scene as a romantic interest for Emira but there are doubts about whether he can be trusted, due to having a shady past. Emira feels jealous of all her successful friends, while all of Alix’s friends now live very far away and she isn’t sure whether she should stay in Philadelphia when she desperately misses New York. These only scratch the surface of all the intricate relationships, between Reid’s real and relatable characters, that run through the story. There are no lazy stereotypes or personalities who are any less than fully fleshed. Each character has immense flaws and yet redeeming features. There were times when I loathed each individual character at different points in the book, and moments where I felt nothing but sheer love for many of them. There are very few books which evoke in me a sense of investment like this.
The book has a powerful message also. The racially charged incident at the supermarket, while shocking, is only the tip of the iceberg. There are references to Uncle Tom’s, fetishization of the black community, white guilt and power dynamics between races. Kiley Reid challenges the reader on these subjects, never portraying characters as entirely in the wrong or entirely correct. Instead, these complex issues are dealt with in multifaceted and engrossing ways. This is how it should be. And yet, at no stage does the book feel like it is preaching or trying too hard to send a message. Reid is comfortable telling a story and if you take onboard the message, which I don’t know how you could fail to, then good, but it is first and foremost a beautifully written book.
The centrepiece of the novel is the relationship between Emira and Alix’s daughter Briar. Briar is a lively, hilarious and curious young girl who often speaks the most sense of any of the characters. Emira loves her deeply and that is the main reason she has stayed in the job as long as she has. This gives us an understanding of why Emira is willing to put up with some of the treatment she receives. A scene towards the end between the little girl and her sitter brought me to tears, such was the emotional power of the connection. It is also the driving force behind a lot of the power dynamics at play. Emira is blind to some of the more questionable aspects of her job, due to her love of looking after and spending time with Briar. Kiley Reid has worked as a nanny and clearly channelled those experiences into her writing. While it isn’t autobiographical, the authenticity it brings the writing is crucial to the believability of this relationship and why it works so well.
Perhaps the most interesting character of the entire book is Alix. On the surface, she is a successful blogger who now owns her own business, is happily married with two children and has a gorgeous house in the suburbs. But she makes poor decision after poor decision and her life unravels. Her desperation to be close to Emira, to not be perceived as a prissy, white, middle-class woman is unbelievably cringe inducing. At one point, she feels pride in the fact that she has a black friend, Tamra, who she can show off to Emira about. And yet despite all of this, her vulnerability still had me semi-rooting for her and wanting everything to be okay for her. She probably is a terrible person, at the very least she makes terrible choices, but Kiley Reid still made me care for her.
In some ways, this book is reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s work. The imperfect characters, the very human relationships and the heartbreak which pulses through the story. It is also about twenty-somethings struggling to find their place in the world. As a twenty-something also struggling to find my place in the world, this felt like the perfect book to read right now. If you are cursing the fact that Sally Rooney hasn’t written more, then you absolutely must pick up this book.
I have spent a long time weighing up whether this would be my first five-star review on the blog. The only possible drawback I found with the story was that at times I found certain characters so frustrating, I felt urged to turn away from the book, but this was entirely by design and inevitably followed by redemption. Spending time with the characters in this book, especially Emira and Briar has been pure joy. I have been invested from the start, desperate to continue reading, to find out what happens and for everyone to be okay. On top of that, the book has an important message which, while not rammed down your throat, is not hidden away either. I simply cannot fault this book. It is a wonderfully written, delightful story which everybody simply must read. If you haven’t already, buy or borrow a copy of this book and read it. I have no doubt that you will fall in love with it and its characters just as I have.