Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living showing other women how to do the same. A mother to two small girls, she started out as a blogger and has quickly built herself into a confidence-driven brand. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night. Seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, a security guard at their local high-end supermarket accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make it right.
But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.
Such a Fun Age is a novel that disheartened me even if it didn’t surprise me. Something akin to relief gusted through my room like a warm front when I finished it: not because it was an unpleasant read—though it does depict many unpleasant moments—but because the story often wound up my feelings to the highest point of second-hand embarrassment that I was frankly relieved it was over.
Narratives about race and privilege are not unfamiliar literary fodder, but in her novel, Reid demonstrates a remarkable insight by taking on the monumental challenge of revealing the state of America through what she called the “everyday domestic biases that we don’t even know we have.” Reid’s exploration is a fresh and interesting look at the uneasy performance of “wokeness”—a paper-thin tissue of a word, so conspicuous that it now immediately breeds distrust.
At the outset of the novel, Emira Tucker, a young black woman, is accosted by a security guard in an upscale grocery store in Philadelphia and accused of kidnapping the white toddler she’s babysitting. The scene is unnerving, devastating, and all-too-familiar, but rather than dwell on the racial and political implications of this terrible, defining incident, Reid almost speeds through it, and so does Emira, who chooses to give the whole affair the shake of the head it deserves, like putting the whole night in a museum—removed, too-soon forgotten—and turns her mind to the far more preoccupying matter of her inching closer to her 25th birthday and towards the inevitability of being kicked-out of her parents’ health insurance.
The author’s choice, however, doesn’t make these details any less affecting, and suggests them, instead, as an essential context for the relationship residing at the heart of the novel: between Emira and her employer, Alix Chamberlain, a white wealthy influencer who built a flowering career writing letters, an endeavor that later carried her forward into a disappointing, grown-up, settled existence in Philadelphia.
Reid’s novel is smartly and solidly told; her prose is incisive and lived-in, as though carefully culled from years of listening in on private conversations. But the book’s biggest triumph is the way the author hides barbed, little truths in her otherwise lightweight yarns while still conveying a clear-headed message, as permeable as sandstone.
As it happens, if lack of subtlety was a recognized art, Alix Chamberlain would have museum exhibits in her honor. Alix feels that she has earned her woke badge, and prides herself on that fact, but after the incident at the supermarket, she decides to “wake the fuck up” and “get to know Emira better”. This wake-up call is followed by an urge to announce her newly invigorated self-awareness to Emira, hoping for recognition, some kind of affirmation of the work she has done on herself. She wants Emira to know “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.”
Alix’s sudden warmth, which seemed to presume upon some happy old intimacy she and Emira did not share, throws Emira into awkwardness. Her well-meaning words and best efforts—which often made me cringe with a sharpness that was almost pain—to cultivate an image of herself as being politically aware quickly turn into empty puffs of air. Too caught in the weave of her fumbling attempts at identifying with Emira—even going as far as peering on the notifications displayed on the lock-screen of Emira’s phone, mining for answers about her social life—Alix is incognizant of her own remarkable lack of self-awareness. After all, outside the oleaginous remarks and overtly friendly behavior, there remained the central idea that Alix just didn’t want Emira to quit her job.
Reid’s subtle evisceration of these woke wannabes—every person of color will undoubtedly recognize in the deftly rendered characters at least a few people they’ve encountered in real life—might be even more bracing at close range. People love the idea of being “woke”, even if they don’t know what to do with it. Even if they only know how to do exactly the wrong thing. They want to be considered progressive, and want everyone to know just how progressive they are. But these efforts, while they create the illusion of reflectiveness and depth, are in fact brittle and shallow as a mirror. Some people do acknowledge the benefits that accrue to them by means of their white privilege, carefully listen, and do their best to amplify the voices of their marginalized counterparts. But many utterly fail to recognize the prejudices in themselves, and like Alix, feel compelled, even, to assert a kind of spurious decency: they claim to be culturally aware and yet are, sadly, incredibly lacking in self-awareness.
Though the ending feels abrupt and does not resonate as strongly as the rest of the novel, Such a Fun Age succeeds at the things it sets out to do.