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!
In 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