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Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Such A Fun Age: Class, Race, and Privilege

Novels about class and race shouldn't be allowed to be as cool and readable as Kiley Reid's debut, Such A Fun Age. But wow, this one sure is! It will certainly be the first big hit of 2020. This is truly a novel of our times, and the way it handles the subtlety and nuance of the conversations around race and privilege is really fantastic.

Just to start: Imagine being presumptuous enough to think nothing of calling your part-time day babysitter at 10:45 pm on a Saturday to come pick up your three-year-old kid so you can deal with a very minor crisis. That's how Alix Chamberlain, an early 30s wealthy white Philadelphian kicks off the novel. Her call is to Emira Tucker, a mid-20s black woman who is at a birthday party, but answers the summons because she needs the money.

But then things get even worse. Emira takes three-year-old Briar to a grocery store down the street to kill time. A woman at this upscale store thinks something is awry — why would a black woman in party attire be at this store on a Saturday night with a young white girl? So she gets security involved, you know, just to make sure everything's on the level. This is a pretty familiar scene in this day and age of BBQ Becky and Permit Patty and other white women calling the cops on black people simply for committing the offense of "living while black."

So that's the setup for what happens over the course of the next 300 pages. Alix, whose actual name is Alex, but changed the spelling to seem more sophisticated but also maybe to help hide herself from an embarrassing incident from her past, is your typical "Karen" — a vastly self-centered, though sometimes well-meaning, early 30s rich woman who doesn't really understand the world beyond her nose. An avowed do-gooder who has developed a sort of (possibly BS) women's empowerment blog and brand, Alix is mortified about what happened to Emira. Somehow Alix sees it as her own fault, and attempts to atone for this by insinuating herself into Emira's life with an unearned over-familiarity that makes Emira uncomfortable.

Then, Emira begin dating a man who was there the night of the grocery story incident. This fella has a connection to Alix's past. And when we learn the full details, Alix begins a slow unraveling. And it's a fascinating train wreck to watch, though Emira become the collateral damage.

The differences between Alix and Emira are what make this novel powerful and fascinating. One huge example of this is Alix's entitlement and absolute certainty of her place in the world vs. Emira's struggle to find her way. Another is the way Reid portrays Alix's and Emira's groups of friends. Both lean on their friends for advice and support, but often in vastly different ways and with hugely different results.

You really would expect a novel about such heavy topics to itself be heavy. But that is absolutely not the case. This reads quickly and smoothly, and really is a lot of fun. Very highly recommended!

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