“A comedy of good intentions” might seem an improbable description of a book that lays bare issues of race and class in contemporary America—but that’s how Kiley Reid aptly sums up her debut novel, Such a Fun Age. As the book begins, there’s certainly not much to laugh about: A young black woman in an upscale grocery store in Philadelphia is accused of kidnapping the white toddler she’s babysitting. A heated exchange with the market’s security guard ensues—all recorded on video—and the woman is allowed to leave only after the child’s father arrives to explain the situation. But any good comedy is about subverting expectations, and this ominous, all-too-familiar instance of racial profiling gives way to a funny, fast-paced social satire about privilege in America, and about, as Reid said in a recent book talk, the “everyday domestic biases that we don’t even know we have.”
At the heart of the novel is Emira Tucker, the babysitter, who is an aimless 25-year-old former English major with a far-from-conventional background. She comes from a family of makers—bookbinders, latte artists, seamstresses, beekeepers—whose proclivity for craftsmanship is “so dogged that it leaned into religious territory.” Her parents and siblings had fallen easily into their chosen fields, but Emira struggled to discover a passion of her own. Waiting “for her hands to find themselves,” she left her small Maryland town for Philadelphia, where she became the first person in her family to attend a four-year college. After graduating, she still feels lost, and “in a quiet panic” about her finances and career trajectory, she takes a part-time babysitting gig.
If Emira is something of an anomaly, her boss, Alix Chamberlain, is a caricature of the working-mom influencer. She’s 33, white, upper-middle class, and obsessed with remaining “relevant”—which to her means slim, plugged into the Manhattan scene, and sought after by Hillary Clinton’s campaign (the novel kicks off in 2015). In college, Alix blogged about luxury products she was sent after writing companies gushing letters on fancy stationery. In her late 20s, she developed an Instagram-based female-empowerment brand called Let Her Speak. With little more than tidy cursive and a B.A. in marketing as credentials, she began appearing on panels to preach a Lean In–like approach to work and love.
Alix prides herself on her progressive status, but it’s only after the night of the grocery-store incident that she vows to “wake the fuck up” and “get to know Emira Tucker.” Even then, her resolution is largely self-serving: She’s worried that Emira might quit. Before long, Alix’s newfound interest spirals into an all-consuming obsession, which Reid deftly deploys to satirize the white pursuit of wokeness. Alix develops feelings for her sitter that aren’t “completely unlike a crush,” and begins trapping Emira as she tries to leave, “referencing conversations that they’d never had. ‘Emira, remind me what you majored in?’ … ‘Did you say that you had any allergies?’” She takes to peering at the notifications on the home screen of Emira’s phone to glean more about her social life and musical tastes, covertly Googling things like “Is Childish Gambino a person or a band?” and “How do you pronounce the name SZA?”
Reid—who spent six years caring for the children of wealthy Manhattanites—is equally comfortable inhabiting Alix’s mind and Emira’s, agilely narrating her novel in a close third-person from the two women’s alternating perspectives. That Alix is not so nimble at cross-racial empathizing is painfully clear. Her fascination with Emira becomes an exercise in narcissistic projection: She fantasizes about Emira discovering personal details that affirm the most progressive (and, she believes, truest) version of herself—“like the fact that one of Alix’s closest friends was also black. That Alix’s new and favorite shoes were from Payless, and only cost eighteen dollars. That Alix had read everything that Toni Morrison had ever written.” Absurd though she (sometimes) knows her approach is, she can’t figure out another way in. Alix’s focus on her own reflection blinds her to any real sense of Emira, or of what’s actually preoccupying her—like the fact that she’s about to be kicked off her parents’ health insurance.
Alix’s myopia isn’t lost on Emira. Writing from the younger woman’s point of view, Reid renders white people whose eagerness to shed their blinkers results in fumbling attempts to identify with black people—as much to burnish their own images as to genuinely connect with others. Alix vies for Emira’s attention with Kelley Copeland, the white guy whom Emira begins dating. Claiming that Alix is using Emira for her own gain, he repeatedly urges Emira to quit her job. But the enlightenment Kelley prides himself on comes in for some gentle skewering. Courting Emira, he arrives at a club with four black friends in tow, looking “like he was being filmed for the intro of an extremely problematic music video,” as Emira drily observes to herself.
Emira never doubts that Kelley’s interest in her (unlike Alix’s) is genuine—but she calls him out when he tries to conscript her in his performative indignation: “You get real fired up when we talk about that night at Market Depot,” she tells him. “But I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just like … happens.” Getting the security guard fired (his idea) or boycotting the store (Alix makes a big deal of doing that) isn’t her mission. (“Umm, okay,” she says of Alix’s gesture, “the other stores are mad far, but it’s your life.”) Instead, she nudges Kelley toward the quieter work of understanding her, Emira—which means registering that she’s a black woman, but not just a black woman.
The overarching joke of Such a Fun Age is that while the white characters fret over what black people think of them and their progressive values, the black characters are busy getting on with their lives and trying to keep up with one another. Alix obsesses over Emira to the point where she blows off book-draft deadlines and neglects her eldest daughter; for Emira, though, it’s her three close female friends, all college-educated women of color, whose opinions really count. As her peers secure promotions and raises and master’s degrees, Emira fears her best friend among them, Zara, will realize she’s holding the group back and ditch her. Even the Market Depot encounter registers to Emira less as an instance of blatant bigotry than as a “resounding declaration that hissed … This wouldn’t have happened if you had a real fucking job.”
Beneath her comedy of good intentions, Reid—in setting these four women on different class and life trajectories—stages a Millennial bildungsroman that is likely to resonate with 20-something postgraduates scrambling to get launched in just about any American city. Reid could have let Emira belatedly rocket to the same professional heights that her friends achieve—a modern-day happy ending equivalent to marrying them all off—but that would be too tidy. She does, however, grant Emira a new job. It’s full-time, with health benefits.
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