Kiley Reid wants you to know three things before reading her debut novel, Such a Fun Age.
First, the author says during a phone call amid a very busy book touring schedule, she loves talking about money, class and “all those gauche, awkward things that people don’t want to talk about.”
Second, she’s interested in how memory works and how people can have different views of the same event.
And third, she loves dialogue, especially when people are saying one thing but mean something else.
These all come together in Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid’s smart stunner of a social novel. It’s a will-she-won’t-she page turner about an underemployed African American woman and the wealthy white family that hires her as a babysitter. Never has reading about benefits negotiations been so exciting.
Emira Tucker, a recent graduate from Temple University, is eking out a financially precarious living, cobbling together jobs and dreading her 26th birthday, when she will be dropped from her parents’ health insurance. Her employers, Alix and Peter Chamberlain, have recently relocated from New York to Philadelphia, where Peter is an anchor on a local news show and Alix attempts to turn her lifestyle blog into a book. They hire Emira to take care of toddler Briar and new baby Catherine.
“Do I think she’s a villain? No, not at all. But she can still cause just as much damage.”
Reid wastes no time getting to the heart of things. The novel opens late one night when Emira is at a friend’s birthday party. The Chamberlains ask her to come to the house; a rock has been thrown through the window, and the police are expected. Briar is awake and disconcerted, and the parents ask Emira to take the 2-year-old away from the chaotic scene. Emira chooses an upscale neighborhood grocery store, but is confronted by the store’s security guard, who accuses her of kidnapping Briar. The scene quickly escalates. Kelley Copeland, a well-meaning white bystander, begins to film the encounter on his phone. The Chamberlains are called in, and the ugly incident is diffused—but not without laying the groundwork for future damage.
“I love novels that start with something that really pulls me in,” Reid says. “That’s why I started with the grocery store incident. I wanted to explore these instances of racial biases that don’t end in violence as a way of highlighting those moments that we don’t see on the news but still exist every day.”
Kelley encourages Emira to post the video on social media or send it in to the local news. She refuses, but when they run into each other a few weeks later, they begin dating. Meanwhile, Alix, embarrassed at how little she knows about her babysitter, shows a new curiosity in Emira’s life, even sneaking peeks at her phone and asking to meet the new boyfriend. After Kelley and Alix discover that they went to high school together, Alix’s meddling increases, and Emira becomes uncomfortable with Kelley’s ultimatum that she quit her job.
“I wanted to write about a triangle of people who know each other but don’t really know each other, other than ‘I used to date you back in the day, but I don’t really know you anymore,’” Reid says, “or ‘I pay you to work for me, but I don’t really know you.’ I wanted three people to have that awkward connection to each other, to let the attitudes of the characters lead in terms of how they reveal themselves on the page.”
Reid is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently living in Philadelphia, where she is adapting Such a Fun Age into a screenplay. (Lena Waithe’s production team, Hillman Grad Productions, bought the rights to develop the novel last August, when Reid was still finishing up her degree in Iowa.) During the writing of the novel, which took nearly five years, Freddie Gray died after being held in police custody in Baltimore, and Philando Castile was shot by police in Minnesota. ‘‘Smaller, more domestic incidents were happening constantly,” Reid remembers. “There wasn’t one I was trying to re-create, but I was absolutely inspired by the everyday terror. In fact, my book was being shopped when the two African American men were arrested at the Starbucks in Philadelphia. These kinds of incidents are real. I wanted to focus on the fact that for Emira, this doesn’t go away.”
In lesser hands, the meddling Alix would be the villain of the story. But Reid doesn’t see it that way. “Alix has many great qualities—she’s quick, creative, funny. I’ve definitely experienced what Alix has experienced, in having little friend-crushes on someone,” Reid says. “I see her bad qualities as more of a symptom of a broken system. Like a lot of us, she wants to feel good and like she’s doing good. So she thinks giving Emira a bottle of wine is going to solve something, when what Emira needs is health insurance and to be able to pay her rent on time. Do I think she’s a villain? No, not at all. But she can still cause just as much damage.”
Just as Alix isn’t the bad guy, neither is Emira a hero, though her actions at times and her love for Briar are heroic in their way. (One of the core strengths of the novel is the fierce attachment Emira feels for Briar, even as she acknowledges that their relationship is part of, as Reid puts it, “an exchange of emotional goods.”)
“I wanted to write about a character who doesn’t know what she wants to do and is in a very vulnerable emotional and financial situation,” Reid explains. “Emira has a college education, she’s smart, she has good friends, but things are still very difficult for her, especially as her health insurance is ending.” Worst of all, she blames herself for being underemployed, especially as all her friends are more gainfully employed with their own apartments and benefits.
Like the novel’s principal characters, the supporting cast is unforgettable, from the precocious Briar to Peter’s conventional but take-charge co-anchor. Reid’s skill with character and dialogue keeps the action moving forward at a brisk clip, most visibly at the Chamberlain Thanksgiving table. The scene is a masterpiece of discomfort and revelation, with all the awkwardness that could possibly occur when a volatile mix of friends, former lovers and employers get together in one room.
“To have that many people in the room has been one of my favorite writing challenges, and it took me about six to eight weeks to get a rough draft,” recalls Reid with a laugh. “I am not great at math, so I had to map out where everyone sat or moved so I could keep track of them. Honestly, I kept losing the babies, forgetting whose laps they were sitting on or if they were even at the table. This is my favorite kind of puzzle game—to create questions that I can then answer. What recipe would this person make? If there was an awkward moment, who would jump in and save the day? Who would make it worse?”
The timeliness of Such a Fun Age is reinforced by the robust presence of social media, which Reid seamlessly integrates into her story. But true to form, there is a message behind the technique. “Social media allows people to see racism play out in real time, in really terrifying ways,” Reid says. “I wanted to include that panic from the onlooker, that point where you are wondering, ‘What am I seeing, do I need to pull out my phone?’ Social media is also the way people brand themselves, which Alix does very successfully, even pretending to her followers that she still lives in New York City. Emira doesn’t use Instagram or Facebook, because she doesn’t really know who she is.”
Back to the things Riley wants you to know. Money, guilt, the emotional cost of a transactional economy and unrecognized white privilege are at the heart of Such a Fun Age. But make no mistake, it’s also a blast to read, and you will laugh out loud.
“I have no pretense to pretend that this is anything other than a novel, and for me, a novel is meant to entertain,” says Reid. “That being said, I wrote a story about a young woman who is about to come to the end of her health insurance, and that affects her greatly. I want someone to say, ‘Well, why doesn’t she have insurance? She’s a wonderful employee, a hard worker. What would our world look like if that wasn’t an issue?’ Now, that would be a great reaction.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Such a Fun Age.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Lena Waithe’s production company. It also called baby Catherine the wrong name.
Author photo © David Goddard