Such A Fun Age is an irresistible read. I stayed up till 4am to finish it, and had no absolutely qualms about it. I just had to get to the end, and had zero regrets once I did. The end came quicker than I expected and washed over me in waves of slow realization, as I looked back and mentally pieced together parts of the book together with the end revelation in mind.
It’s no surprise that Queen & Slim writer/producer Lena Waithe picked up the film and TV rights to this story before publication. I expect this book to stay with me long after I begin picking up other reads. It took me on a journey, constantly leaving mental breadcrumbs to mull through while I was away from the book, keeping the story and its characters continually in my mind, as if they were real people I occasionally wandered what were up to.
Set in 2015, we meet Emira, a twenty-five year old Philadelphia babysitter who knows at once she’s too old to be babysitting and too young to know exactly what it is she wants to do. When she’s accused of kidnapping the white, eldest child of the famed and wealthy Chamberlain family at the local upscale grocery store (at the end of a gentrified street), unexpected ramifications ripple through every part of Emira’s life, upheaving the practiced separation she’s quietly nurtured between her professional and private life. Her boss Alix Chamberlain, with her own patchwork background, takes a guilt-driven, aggressive newfound interest in her babysitter despite the fact that they couldn’t possibly have anything in common with a sea of wealth, privilege and opportunity between them. What ensues is a story with such incessant depth, consistently posing questions and offering thoughtful commentary on the state of our society, and the power of our own narrative.
Such a Fun Age is obsessive and compulsive, and I found the topics it quietly and thoughtfully hints at creeping into my conversation. Admittedly an exploration of “class dynamics in tiny microcultures“, Reid ushers us into the inner workings of the babysitting world, and the way class plays a prominent role in deciding who gets to be the haves and the have-nots.
The connections the author subtly weaves between the story are absolutely stunning. As one piece is revealed, another follows after it just when you’ve forgotten to be on your guard. With every turn, it felt like when the storyline got too comfortable—where you felt like you’d found your footing and could predict how the story would progress—she’d add in another detail or a curveball when you least expected it. I felt like I could never get comfortable reading this book—I was always on my toes, and that, I believe, is by design.
Maybe this book was written to simulate the experience of being Black. You can never quite anticipate or control how someone is going to react to you, what they’re going to say to you or what makes them feel the need to “put you in your place” when you start getting too comfortable, when you start feeling like you understand the terrain and stop looking over your shoulder—when you start thriving. I could intimately relate to many of Emira’s experiences, and her constant need to reduce contentious situations by overlooking large and small injustices to accommodate and in some instances, please the non-Black people around her to make her life easier in the long run.
The writing is crisp, clear and the story infrastructure is crafted in a masterful way. Truly, Kiley Reid is a master storyteller. I deeply appreciate when great writing is just as easy to read—a rare pleasure.
“But sometimes, after seeing her paused songs like “Y’all Already Know”, and then hearing her use words like connoisseur, Alix was filled with feelings that went from confused and highly impressed to low and guilty in response to the first reaction. There was no reason for Emira to be unfamiliar with this word. And there was no reason for Alix to be impressed. Alix completely knew these things, but only when she reminded herself to stop thinking them in the first place.”
Astute, almost canny observations like this one seemed to reflect so many conversations I’ve been a fly on a wall to in my community and left me with no doubt that the author was a Black person, writing from both her perspective and potential experience, as well as the perspective of the complete opposite, a white woman.
This read highlighted the question I would submit all Black people at one point ask of their white peers around them: how do you really see me? Many actions—thoughts, initial reactions, rushed commentary—made by the white characters in this text revealed the internalized racism they still grappled with while maintaining active relationships with the Black characters. Guilt, contemplation and trying seemed to be the main themes here for white characters slowly, grudgingly, realizing their privilege and how their mistakes and learnings from them add up to the sum total of who they are today. In this one, no character is simply “good” or “bad”—there’s no one to love to hate or point to as the undeniable “villain”. Instead, each character possesses both admirable and despicable qualities, holding them simultaneously in the same space, forcing you to contemplate the weight of their actions against their intentions. As Reid described in one interview, “…when we start categorizing people into good and bad, we stop judging the systems that let them act the way they’re acting, and we stop seeing them as a symptom of capitalism, or systemic racism.”
Love it or Leave It?
Such a Fun Age answers all those questions and more, and I found myself both floored and delighted by it. I can easily understand why it’s one of 2020’s best books many times over, and believe it’s a title worthy of the name. The questions it explores and seeks to provide a voice to stayed with me and guided many of my conversations as I made my way through it. Are you responsible for the person you were before you knew better? Is it fair to judge who you are today versus who you were? Can one bad incident be overlooked if it catapulted a decade of redeeming action? If you’re looking to be challenged on your thinking while also being wholeheartedly entertained, this one is for you.