Monday, February 17, 2020

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

In a wonderfully perceptive and often humorous debut novel, Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid takes on issues of race and class in a delightfully light-handed way. It is the story of two women, a white woman, Alix Chamberlain who writes a kind of inspirational blog urging  women to take power in  the workplace, and a twenty-five year old black woman, Emira, who babysits Alix’s wonderfully precocious three year old daughter, Briar, so that Alix can work from home. Emira and her three closest friends, Zara, Josefa, and Shaunie are all recent college graduates; they often go our drinking and dancing together, and the novel opens with the four women at a birthday party for Shaunie. Due to an egging at the Chamberlain house which includes a rock being thrown through a doorway window, Alix calls Emira begging her to come take Briar away from the home for an hour or so since the police have been called, and Alix and her husband Peter do not want young Briar to be exposed to the hubbub of flashing lights and police in the home.

Emira agrees, though explaining that she is dressed for the party and does not look much like a baby-sitter. No problem, insists Alix and promises to send a cab and to pay her double for the inconvenience. Since this opening scene is pivotal to the rest of the novel, I will recount a bit more without giving away much of the storyline. Emira takes Briar to a very upscale little convenience story nearby to keep her entertained during the police visit. Zara has accompanied Briar and Emira to the store and they end up dancing down one of the aisles with Briar leading the way. An overzealous security guard decides that, since Emira is obviously not the mother of the child, he needs to intervene. A very tall young white man begins to use his phone to capture video of the encounter and to offer up advice to Emira.
“Hey hey hey.” The man behind the cell phone tried to get Emira’s attention. ”Even if they ask, you don’t have to show your ID. It’s Pennsylvania state law." 
Emira said, ”I know my rights dude.” 
"Sir?” The security guard stood and turned. ”You do not have the right to interfere with a crime.” 
“Holdup holdup, a crime…what crime is  being committed right now? I’m working,
I’m making money right now, and I bet I’m making more than you." 
“Okay ma’am?” The security guard widened his stance to match hers. ‘You are being held and questioned because the safety of a child is at risk.'
Emira manages to call the Chamberlain’s home, and within minutes Peter shows up; the security guard completely changes his demeanor and the situation de-escalates. The young man who tried to intervene, Kelley, turns out to be a central character in the rest of the novel. 

Much of the early parts of the novel are taken up with conversations between Emira and her best friends, and Alix and her best friends. All of the friends are various shades of color, and the repartee between the women is often very funny and enlightening about working women in New York and Philadelphia, and the struggles with childcare.

Although resistant at first, Emira begins to date Kelley.  They trade stories about their lives and soon realize how compatible they are. The third star of this book is Briar, or simply B, and her many interactions with Emira (who  she calls Mira).

Alix, who loves the relationship between her daughter and Emira, begins to try to make Emira a part of the family, and seems to genuinely love her. Alix’s parents had come into a lot of money at some point in Alix’s childhood, and used it to buy extravagant homes and cars. As it happens, Alix and Kelley had a tumultuous relationship in high school, and that relationship causes near disastrous consequences for Emira and Kelley as well as Alix.

Emira learns that not only does Kelley have a lot of black friends, but that he seems to date only light skinned black women. The many conversations between the women reveal so much about race and class issues, but author Reid is, I think, extremely skillful in stepping back as narrator and allowing the characters themselves to bring out the issues. Even when the novel turns very serious in the end, Reid refuses to enter in as omniscient narrator  or even to provide commentary on the actions that take place.

Given that this is Black History month, I had initially intended to talk about Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara, all of whom I have reviewed in the past years. But there is something so fresh and crisp about Reid’s writing and such a here-and-now look at questions of race and class that I felt I must review her novel. Hard to believe it is a debut novel, but then she has been writing for a long time and has published in many magazines.

The combination of humor and wisdom in this book make it one that I hope will be read widely.

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