“Such a Fun Age,” Kiley Reid’s debut novel, is a bold, urgent, essential exploration of race, class, labor, friendship, identity and self-delusion, both deliciously readable and incredibly complex. This smart, quick-paced novel tracks the fallout and triumphs that follow its characters’ slightest gestures and impulses. Without ever resorting to didactic tones or prescriptive proclamations, Reid portrays the way different bodies are read in public spaces.
Alix Chamberlain, a wealthy white business owner, soars to professional success and acclaim after breast-feeding her toddler on stage during a panel “at an event called Small Business Femme.” This is a calculated decision, and it works, in part, because of Alix’s race and class, which she shares with much of her audience.
“ ‘Women are often just asking for a seat at the table,’ ” she proclaims, adding, “ ‘I’m not really asking,’ ” when she brings her daughter on stage to feed her. This is both a flaunting of privilege and a true moment of empowerment; fittingly, each page of Reid’s prose is a faceted prism. Alix, in particular, convinces herself that her motivations are less self-serving than they are.
The Chamberlain family’s babysitter, Emira Tucker, works several days a week in Alix’s Philadelphia home — a universe in which Alix receives expensive things for free because she is, effectively, an influencer (though the word itself, happily, does not appear). In striking juxtaposition to Alix’s “not really asking” at Small Business Femme, Emira, a black woman, is stopped by a security guard at a grocery store for dancing with her charge, Briar Chamberlain, late in the evening, because the sight made a white passerby “ ‘a little nervous.’ ”
This scene — tense, rich, terrifying — haunts Emira and the novel itself, resurfacing toward the end in a viral video with all the attendant global commentary. The video is filmed and released without Emira’s consent, by people close to Emira, each with an independent interest in her body (one her employer, who develops an unseemly obsession with Emira, and one with Emira’s white boyfriend, whose own ties to Alix are a delightful narrative twist).
From a craft perspective, Reid’s debut is an exemplar novel: Each character’s voice is perfectly distinct in dialogue; each text message is plausible, powerful. There is humor (chiefly through Emira’s best friend, Zara) and not a small amount of suspense. Every element of back story is tied to a relevant future moment. Adult women crowd into closets and bathrooms to conspire, and readers are desperate to overhear their plotting. Briar is depicted as a true individual with a hilarious and endearing personality. Alix’s privilege is not without its own complexities — her family won its wealth through a lawsuit, and she is far from beloved in her hometown. Not a word is wasted, and not a nuance goes unnoticed in this masterwork.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, LennyLetter, Narrative, The Millions, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
Such a Fun Age
By: Kiley Reid.
Publisher: Putnam, 310 pages, $26.
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