Review: Such a Fun Age

My Booker Prize 2020 reading is officially underway! I started with a quick read from the longlist to gain some momentum: Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, a contemporary novel that I had a good time with, though after reading I’m still a bit surprised by its placement on the Booker list!

suchafunageIn the novel, Emira is called away from a friend’s 26th birthday party for a late-night babysitting emergency; while the adult Chamberlains deal with a situation at home, Emira takes their toddler to a nearby grocery store, where the child enjoys looking at the nuts and smelling the teas. Except this time, Emira isn’t dressed like a babysitter, and when the security guard spots her holding the hand of the white child, he accuses her (a Black woman) of kidnapping. The situation is awful but resolved quickly, and Emira would like to bury the incident in the past and move forward. But Emira’s employer and her new boyfriend become a little too focused on proving how not-racist they are in the wake of this event, making Emira’s life harder in the process.

“For a moment she thought, What if I just took you and walked out the door? How far would we get? Shaunie’s apartment? Maybe Pittsburgh?

Such a Fun Age is a drama-filled novel that unfolds like a race-focused soap opera. As such, its characters feel somewhat exaggerated, their dialogue and actions somewhat insufferable, and some of the plot details a little too coincidental or extreme to feel truly realistic. Even so, it has an addictive, gossip-y feel and manages to convey a serious message without taking itself too seriously in the process. It’s a great summer read, a perfect book club choice, and a solid alternative to the often uber-white drama of similar titles in this style (think: Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had).

The major players include: Emira, just a regular woman struggling with adulthood, whose pure love for the child she babysits is a beacon of joy amid the rest of the negativity and harm apparent in this tale; Alix Chamberlain, the influencer mom obsessed with her public image and what she can get out of any and every situation, including her babysitter’s vulnerability; and Kelley, the man who films the interaction at the grocery store and strikes up a relationship with Emira, who turns out to be only one of the many Black people Kelley insists on filling every aspect of his life with. Reid does an excellent job of focusing on each character’s story individually, including spouses, friends, and colleagues. Through them we see a wider view of key personalities and relevant motivations; importantly, the white characters are not the only ones whose actions hurt Emira, though they are frequently the ones who take matters too far.

Every chapter seems to present its own excitement; every dramatic revelation, even the ones that feel eye-roll worthy, had me mock gasping in delight at the ways in which the narrative is pushed as far as it will stretch. There’s certainly something to be said for Reid’s ability to turn a weighty discussion into a piece this entertaining, and I think in doing so she’ll be able to take these important messages to an audience that might not have bothered with a more heavily literary presentation, a victory not to be overlooked. But I do wonder whether Such a Fun Age loses a bit of impact and with its levity; it’s a delicious romp for the casual reader, but Emira (and the real people who experience situations such as hers) stand to lose plenty when the allies they trust don’t actually have their backs. There needs to be something more than fun here if Reid’s intent is anything other than for readers to take these matters lightly.

“Alix had started her day in Manhattan, ready to tell Kelly, I know who you really are. But now she sat in Philadelphia, participating in a losing game called ‘Which One of Us Is Actually More Racist?’ “

Because this book relishes over-the-top details and lacks a certain depth and engagement with form that I typically expect from Booker nominees, I think I might have enjoyed this title more if I had picked it up outside of the context of the Booker- but I don’t want to imply that the book’s themes or author are a bad fit for a literary prize. I might even have liked this title better alongside last year’s Booker list. As is, I do think it’s easy to compare Such a Fun Age and Real Life (also longlisted this year) in terms of racist microaggressions and erroneous expectations of what modern racism looks like for twenty-something Black Americans; once that comparison has been made (which seems an inevitable result when the two appear on the same list), from a literary standpoint I think Real Life author Brandon Taylor simply accomplishes more with his prose and implications. None of this is to say Reid’s book isn’t worth the read, and I did certainly find it worth my time. I am glad the Booker nomination will put Such a Fun Age into more hands, but for me it’s just not a title that’s going to leave a lasting impression (there’s not much to mull over once the final page has been turned), no matter how much I may have enjoyed my time with it.

” ‘How difficult is it to tell someone, “Hey, your boyfriend likes you for the wrong reasons?” If someone told me that I’d be like, “No, he doesn’t. Mind your business.” It’s not like Alix can tell her to not be with him.’ Then Rachel added this as if it were an unfortunate fact: ‘Emira is a grown woman.’ / ‘But she’s not, though! […] Emira is still so young,’ she said, and with this, Alix felt her eyes begin to water. She let her voice crack to say, ‘What the fuck is he doing with her?’ a tear dropped into her napkin. The idea of Kelley truly having feelings for Emira seemed slightly worse than him using her for his own gain. Just the thought of it put a sharp buzzing sound into her head.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. As I said, I had a good time. I’m excited to see what else the Booker list has in store this year, though I hope the next titles I read will prove a bit more memorable. I am glad I didn’t let the hype or mixed reviews dissuade me from giving this one a try, but I’m hoping my next Booker review will end with a stronger recommendation; I’m currently reading Mengiste’s The Shadow King from the longlist, to review next week.

If you’ve read Such a Fun Age, let me know what you thought! If you’ve read other Booker longlisters recently, let me know which title has been your favorite so far!

 

The Literary Elephant

34 thoughts on “Review: Such a Fun Age”

  1. Hmmm, you make a good point on how different it might be reading this in the context of the Booker. When I read it back then I considered it a “book club” sort of pick, and it exceeded my expectations as one, especially with its exploration on “well-intentioned” and liberal racism. But I’m really on the fence about it as a Booker pick. Regardless, I think it’s great that the Booker is diversifying! (And ugh, would’ve killed me if something like The Most Fun ended up there, lol.)

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    1. Yes, I love that the Booker longlist is so diverse this year! Even though I probably wouldn’t have picked Such a Fun Age for this prize myself, I am glad that books like this are being appropriately considered. And I agree re: The Most Fun We Ever Had! I would’ve preferred Such a Fun Age on the WP longlist as well, so I suppose that’s one extra reason to be thankful it showed up for the Booker- no Lombardo here!

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      1. Lol I feel like we’re so mean to Lombardo after the WP 🤣🤣 Suddenly I feel the need to balance it by saying that I would still probably read her work if the premise is interesting enough, but I’ve had enough of novels about rich white people problems!

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      2. I did find Lombardo’s novel entertaining, and I don’t mean to say it’s a bad book per se, it’s just not really a lit prize book, imo. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but context can be so important for how a book is read. I don’t think I would’ve minded the rich white people problems quite so much if there had been more critique, a deeper dig into the book’s themes!

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    2. I think this book might open an honest space at a book club where folks could talk about actions they’ve taken that came from a positive place and inspect how those actions may have been microaggressions. For instance, Emira seemed like she needed guidance but she wasn’t asking for it. Giving her advice may come off as sexist, ageist, or racist, depending on who’s giving the advice, what it is, and why they think they’re in a place to assist before being asked.

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      1. I want to agree with this- I do hope Such A Fun Age will inspire readers to reconsider their own actions and impulses in order to behave in more equal and considerate ways moving forward. I’d love for those discussions and personal reflections to be taking place. But the fact that the narration points out that both Alix and Kelley are acting with purely selfish intentions I think makes it harder to begin those conversations. Neither of them mean well for Emira at all, which makes it seem to me like readers who do have good intentions will feel like the lessons here don’t apply to them. This is why I made the comparison to Brandon Taylor’s Real Life in my review- most of the white characters in that book who are behaving in racist ways really ARE well-intentioned and don’t see they’re doing anything wrong, and become angry with the Black MC if he points out what they’re doing wrong; I think there’s more opportunity for discussion and self-reflection there on the same topics Such a Fun Age wants to address, but the overdramatics with Alix and Kelley steal a bit of the book’s sincerity. But if even one book club or even one person makes meaningful changes in their behavior or life based on their reading of Such a Fun Age, that’s better than zero, and I’m very happy for it.

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      2. Oooooooh. See, in the book, I don’t trust Kelley or Alix, but I because we get to be in Alix’s head, at least, I felt like both she and Kelley felt that neither one was doing anything with bad intentions. Alix seemed to think she was giving Emira a leg up, an opportunity because Emira is a poor, disadvantaged black girl (<<all sarcasm). Kelley seemed to think that if he immersed himself in black culture, that somehow made him "woke" without really doing the work of understanding. I think I missed when the narrator says Kelley and Alix are knowingly doing things in their own interests! It's also been a few months (heck, it was right before COVID was a thing!) since I listened to the book.

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      3. Oh, okay! We had different readings of Alix and Kelley, that explains our different reactions! Thanks for the reminder that seeing a character’s thoughts can help some readers empathize with that person. For me, I was so caught up in Alix’s invasion of Emira’s privacy, her using Emira to impress her friends, her refusal to take any responsibility for what happened with the arrest at her house in high school even when she finds proof that Kelley probably wasn’t involved… Being in her head just made her feel more slimy to me, like even her “good” thoughts were for show, so she could see herself as a good person even when that wasn’t the case. And I felt that Kelley was only interested in Emira because he saw her as a victim at the grocery store and somehow that appealed to him. (Would he have ever dated her if the security guard hadn’t questioned her? It’s not addressed in the book, but I think not.) That made me see them both as more clearly bad-intentioned, but it’s good to know that’s not the only way they can be read, and I can see how finding them to be sort of warring with good intentions and poor follow-through could lead to more productive conversations for readers.

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      4. Ohhhh! See, I thought their actions were incredibly shitty, but their intentions, in their own doofy brains, were good. Like, they’re so out of touch with other people they thought they were doing good.

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      5. Interesting! I did not take them to be that sincere in intent, but I can see now how they could be read that way and it does change the way one views the book and its meanings- and opens up a stronger avenue for self-reflection! I do hope readers will be having these conversations about intent and actions needing to match up and work in a way that helps rather than hurts other people.

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  2. This is a book I’d love to read. But I might not pick it up till mid November. We’ll see. 🤪 I’m glad to see you working your way through Booker list. Looking forward to read rest of the reviews. Keep them coming!

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    1. Ah, thank you!! I will have several more Booker reviews coming up over the next few weeks. 🙂 I hope you’ll enjoy Such a Fun Age when you get to it, I do think it’s a book worth giving a chance!

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  3. Okay, I had decided not to pick this up but your review now makes me want to ,again. This book just keeps getting such different reactions from people, but I feel that your review was very well-balanced and gave a good idea of what to expect! I think it sounds like an enjoyable read. Looking so much forward to your next Booker reviews!

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    1. Haha, I was on the fence about this one too, but ended up happy to be reading it! I know Rachel didn’t have such good luck and I can see how disliking the book’s tone could be offputting, but I do think there’s a lot to appreciate here and when it works it really works. I hope you’ll like this one when you get to it! And thank you! 🙂

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  4. I pretty much agree with your thoughts, and I also felt the ending of the novel was much too reductive, organising the characters into very simplistic moral camps when before things had been a bit more complicated. I loved reading this and I think Reid has a lot of promise as a writer, but I wouldn’t have longlisted it for the Booker.

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    1. I feel much the same re: enjoyability vs Booker listign, and will be curious to see what Reid writes next. I can definitely understand finding the ending too superficial, and I would agree, with the caveat that I found most of the book to lean that way and was unsurprised by the time the ending arrived. If those final scenes had toned down the dramatics and packed a more realistic punch to leave the reader with more takeaway, this might well have been a 5-star for me!

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  5. i definitely agree about the book’s over the top, exaggerated nature – i think thats what put me off it in the end. it felt like the book was trying to have it both ways by trying to explore the realities of racist microaggressions and performative allyship with the super dramatic and over the top dramatics of the plot, especially Alix’s backstory and her connection to Emira’s boyfriend

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    1. I was surprised to enjoy the balance of the surface laughs and deeper themes as much as I did- I can definitely understand how it wouldn’t work for every reader! I think if you don’t enjoy the tone it would be hard to find other things to like about the book, because that dramatic tone infects all the rest here. There were definitely bits I found unrealistic (like you mention: Alix and the boyfriend having their own side plot, and that cheesy TV segment scene!) but luckily I found I was able to roll with it. As a consequence though I really didn’t find much real-world takeaway after all the silliness, which was the downside for me. I’m sorry to hear it was a less pleasant experience for you over all, that’s always disappointing! Especially when the book is appearing on prize lists.

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  6. super over the top dramatics of the plot**

    Also I found the ending to be so weak and rushed – i feel like Reid completely undermined all the development that she wrote in Emira by rushing the end like that…

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  7. Great review!! I really like what you said about Emira’s love for Briar being a beacon of joy throughout the novel – it really was so wholesome, and such a relief to experience when many other aspects of Emira’s life weren’t going well. I’m glad you ended up enjoying this book, and hope you enjoy some of the next Booker longlist reads even more!

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    1. I loved all the Emira + Briar scenes so much! I’ve never been a big fan of babysitting but I could really understand Emira’s attachment to the job the more she talked about and interacted with Briar. A perfect pair!
      And thank you! 🙂

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    1. I think this book will fare much better with the commercial lit crowd than the lit fic crowd because so much of the story is right there on the surface and a bit over the top, but I definitely think there are valuable pieces here for many readers to appreciate. It may not be perfect, but I think it’s worthy of the buzz it’s been receiving!

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      1. It does seem like more of a popular read than the other Booker titles but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing to my mind. I wonder if they chose it with an eye to drawing in a new crowd?

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      2. I’m not sure! I wondered if My Sister the Serial Killer was serving the same purpose last year, appealing to a more commercial crowd. Maybe they like to throw in a bit of a wild card like that to catch some broader interest. I suppose they need to be able to generate enough sales and interest each year to keep the prize running and continue the sense of prestige.

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  8. I really enjoyed this book but I agree with you that it was a lighter read than what is usually there in the Booker nominees. But at the same time, I think it deals with racism and microaggressions in terms which would be understandable to everyone

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    1. I agree, and I definitely think the book deserves credit for how accessible it makes these topics, even if that’s not typically what I’m expecting from the Booker! I’m glad you enjoyed the read too. 🙂

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