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Pickle Me This

January 23, 2020

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid

And my catch-up of reviews of popular American books that everyone else read months ago concludes with Kiley Reid’s debut novel, which only came out a couple of weeks ago, so I’m back on top of things. A novel that caught my attention with a stunning cover, so many readers raving about it on Instagram, and that title, Such a Fun Age, which is a phrase I find so cloying—but also such a perfect ironic statement upon the moment in which we live.

So here’s the story: after a late night emergency, Alix Chamberlain calls her babysitter to take her three-year-old daughter, Briar, out of the house for a while. The babysitter is Emira, who’s Black, a 25-year-old college grad who feels stuck in a rut while all her friends’ careers are beginning to ascend. But she loves Briar, and knows she’s good at caring for her, and feels protective of the child too, because she can sense how Briar’s quirks make her mother uncomfortable, the way they mess with Alix’s efforts toward a picture perfect veneer. With Emira, though, Briar can be her strange old self, and the pair are dancing in the aisle of the upscale supermarket in the Chamberlain’s neighbourhood, Emira with her friend and dressed for the night out that Alix’s urgent call had just summoned her from, and a shopper (that lady?) decides that something doesn’t look right with this situation. Calling on the store security guard, who tell Emira she’s not allowed to leave the store with the child, and the whole thing is caught on video by another shopper in the store.

If this were an issue-driven novel (“a book about race in America”) this episode would be the point on which everything turns, but instead it’s just the beginning. And Emira herself is not terribly rattled by what happened in the store that night, because she’s got other things on her plate, and the reality of being Black in America is hardly novel to her anyway after 25 years of it. But Alix, Emira’s boss, is obsessed with the incident, and comes to feel the same about Emira herself, determined to help her, to save her, thinking she knows her well (she checks the texts on Emira’s phone after all), the babysitter’s well-being becoming a project that fills her spare time, which has been considerably more ample since Alix she’d failing to write the book she signed a contract for. (Alix has cobbled together a curious kind of career, the kind of career only a white woman could have, in which she writes letters to companies and asks for things, and they send them to her, and then she reviews them on her blog. She gets speaking opportunities and talks about feminism and agency, and is hoping for an in with Hillary Clinton’s campaign as a kind of legitimizing force, because Alix’s isn’t dumb, and knows her brand is 90% shadow and illusion.)

Such a Fun Age was reviewed in the New York Times the other week, and the review was less than flattering, calling the book “soapy,” as though that were a bad thing. By soapy, the reviewer really means readable, and it is. And it’s true that there’s a plot twist in the form of a connection between Alix and Emira that’s just a little too tidy. But what the reviewer missed is how a novel that’s so eminently readable can also be so well crafted (bumpy plot aside). The dialogue in this book is incredible, and the group scenes (a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner in particular) are so excellently orchestrated that would-be novelists could use this novel as a handbook. It’s a soapy-ish novel that manages to surpass its subject matter, to be about so much more than what it’s purported to be about. A pleasure to read and so smart at once, and utterly, bewitchingly, unsettling.

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