Emira Tucker, one of the two main characters in Kiley Reid’s first novel, Such a Fun Age, is 26 and quietly freaking out. She’s about to age off of her parents’ health insurance, and she’s not sure what to do with her life. She comes from a family of people who knew their vocations early on, but after five years of college, Emira finds herself sharing an apartment in Philadelphia and possessed of merely two marketable skills, typing and child care, neither of which promises much in the way of decent income or benefits. Meanwhile, her girlfriends have started to land juicy promotions at jobs where they wear pencil skirts and have their own offices. She’s dreading the moment that her best friend Zara realizes that Emira is “the reason why the four women didn’t do more things, like take tropical trips on summer Fridays or utilize gel manicure discount days.”
The one quality that distinguishes Emira from millions of other Americans her age (which may or may not be the “fun” age of the novel’s title) is her lack of any social media presence: no Instagram, no Twitter, not even Facebook. That also sets her apart from Alix Chamberlain, who employs Emira to look after her two daughters several days a week. Alix has the sort of vaporous “career” made possible by Instagram influencers and viral YouTube clips. She’s parlayed a surprisingly fruitful hobby of writing letters to companies asking for free stuff “on thick, textured stationery and with dreamy cursive handwriting” into a college application consultation business and “a philosophy about women speaking up and taking communication back to basics” called #LetHerSpeak. (The exquisitely perfect detail of that hashtag should give you a sense of how well-observed this novel is.)
Alix is white, Emira is black, and a summary of the plot of Such a Fun Age must include an incident that occurs in the novel’s first chapter: Emira, who helps the family out one night by taking 3-year-old Briar out of the Chamberlain house during a family emergency, gets hassled by a security guard in a high-end grocery store. A bystander records the incident on his phone, but it doesn’t immediately turn into a viral sensation because Emira demands that he delete the recording. “I don’t mess with the Internet,” she tells him.
If Such a Fun Age were a novel by Jonathan Franzen (which it often resembles in its shrewd, omnivorous, absorbing depiction of the way we live now), Emira would be helplessly plunged into a media circus of ever-escalating absurdity. Reid chooses a quieter, more intricate register. She’s interested in how what feels like an upsetting but peripheral experience to Emira—she knows she should be disturbed by the bigotry, but her primary response is “This wouldn’t have happened to you if you had a real fucking job”—activates a tissue of fantasies in the people around her, particularly the white ones. The bystander with the cellphone, a guy named Kelley, tells her she could get an op-ed in the newspaper out of it. Alix urges her to “sue that entire store. Seeking legal action is completely within your right.”
After the grocery store incident, Alix develops a peculiar crush on her babysitter, yearning for her approval and trying to draw Emira into personal conversations. When that fails to produce the kind of girl talk she shares with her own group of female friends back in New York, Alix resorts to sneaking peeks at the text messages and paused songs on the lock screen of Emira’s phone as it sits in the hallway charger. These offer tantalizing glimpses of nights out at clubs with Zara, as well as “cool and careful” texts with a new man, exchanges of the variety “that only exists at the beginning of something, as you try to exude spontaneity and effortless humor, and space out responses to appear busy and even-keeled.” Emira, it turns out, is dating Kelley, the guy who filmed the grocery store confrontation—even if he did show up at the club with four black friends, looking, to Emira’s eye, “like he was being filmed for the intro of an extremely problematic music video.” “He’s like that one white guy at every black wedding who’s like, super hyped to do the Cupid Shuffle,” Zara opines.
Emira eventually decides that Kelley is OK, but Alix never wins her trust. Like most crushes, Alix’s is more projection than perception. Emira is a regular young person with very understandable concerns; you can’t help but sympathize with her. Alix, on the other hand, is a masterpiece of empathy on Reid’s part, a character who ought to be repellent and yet somehow isn’t. Having decided that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign “completely matched her brand” (the novel is set in 2016), Alix frets when she can’t get Clinton’s people to return her calls, so she breastfeeds her daughter while speaking on a panel at an event called “Small Business Femme.” The stunt lands Alix feminist-meme status, a book deal, and a call back from the campaign. So comprehensively staged is Alix’s life that she finds herself obsessively worrying about how Emira would respond to each post in her Instagram feed and wishing that she could tell her babysitter that she’s not a “textbook rich white person,” that she bought her favorite pair of shoes for $18 at Payless, and that she’s read “everything that Toni Morrison had ever written.”
Emira does judge Alix, but not for any of the things her boss suddenly feels so self-conscious about. Emira adores Briar, a child whose raspy, insistent voice and endless litany of questions drives Alix bananas. Briar is a particular type of 3-year-old, rarely adequately captured in fiction, whose negotiations with the apparatus of reality can be at once thrilling and poignant to witness. Emira finds the little girl “messy and panicky and thoughtful, constantly struggling with demons of propriety,” and while she knows she needs to look for a better job, the prospect of abandoning her “favorite little human” to a mother who doesn’t really like her—who clearly favors her quieter, sweeter sister—torments her. This conflict has Emira stalled until a (highly improbable) coincidence, rooted in Alix’s high school connection to Kelley, finally forces the babysitter to choose. If the point of the novel were its plot, this contrivance might have ruined it, but the reality Reid summons is so persuasive it’s easy to forgive her for what come to seem like minor absurdities.
Such a Fun Age is blessedly free of preaching, but if Reid has an ethos, it’s attention: the attention Emira pays to who Briar really is, and the attention that Alix fails to pay to Emira, instead spending her time thinking about her. It is the same consideration Reid spends on Alix herself, the careful, curious way she excavates the desperation and loneliness behind Alix’s many performances. The novel is often funny and always acute, but never savage; Reid is too fascinated by how human beings work to tear them apart. All great novelists are great listeners, and Such a Fun Age marks the debut of an extraordinarily gifted one.
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