Kiley Reid’s Debut Novel Holds a Magnifying Glass to Well-Intentioned White Villainy
“All this was for you!” cries the villain in Kiley Reid’s debut novel Such a Fun Age. “We wanted to help you clear your name and you turn around and do this?…Everything we’ve done was for you. Everything.”
Reid’s villain puts a pretty face and very blonde head to an unspeakable character I’ve come to know all too well in the years since the election: the well-intentioned white liberal. You’ll recognize her from the T-shirts and tote bags that proudly announce her donations to the local public radio station. She donates to shelters but won’t give money to people on the street, because God knows you can’t trust them to spend it right. She’s the kind of lady who’d read American Dirt and praise its gritty truthfulness.
In Such a Fun Age, our protagonist Emira is a young black woman in Philadelphia who babysits the daughters of the picture-perfect Chamberlain family. The WIWL in question is Emira’s boss Alix Chamberlain. Alix–notably not “Alex”–has created an incredible hashtag-resistance-feminism brand, LetHer Speak, that’s somehow based around letter-writing. I don’t understand the mechanics of the operation, but she seems like some variety of influencer who hires Polo-shirt wearing interns and gives speeches on female empowerment. Reid set the novel in 2015, so of course Alix longs to collaborate with the Clinton campaign. As Emira approaches 26 and worries about losing her health insurance, Alix practically builds her daily life around impressing her nanny with her anti-racism.
The plot goes into motion when people accuse Alix’s husband, a news anchor, of making a racist comment on-air. Someone eggs their home, and Emira takes toddler-age Briar Chamberlain out for a late-night grocery-store run while her parents call the cops. At 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, a racist shopper calls security on Emira and Briar, assuming a kidnapping in progress. This elaborate setup, in the book’s first 20 pages, signals to the reader that this novel, while equal parts mystery and romance, is definitely also about race and class.
A Book-Club-Worthy Twist
Reid interchanges chapters between Emira’s and Alix’s histories and perspectives. For more than half the book, I wasn’t sure if she meant for us to like Alix. Sure, her business is stupid and she makes Emira wear a uniform, but she doesn’t seem…dangerous? But then she starts to descend deeper into obsession. She reads Emira’s texts and scours the Internet for her name. Wondering what Emira’s friends are like, Alix manipulatively prys into her personal life, and the full picture of her villainy begins to take shape.
But it’s not enough that Alix is meddling and messy. Reid’s twist, about a third through Such a Fun Age, makes her so much worse. Emira is dating Alix’s high school boyfriend Kelley who “completely ruined [her] senior year” by breaking up with her for having a black student arrested for trespassing at her McMansion. (Have I mentioned this lady’s also loaded?)
“Alix knew her hair and skin looked amazing,” Reid writes as Alix and her ex-boyfriend have it out about Emira. “If Kelley thought he could leave this table without repercussions, if Emira thought she could just ask for cash and call [her husband] by his first name, then they both had greatly underestimated her.”
Reid’s debut, which is Reese Witherspoon’s first book club choice for 2020, paints a pretty villain. But this novel, absolute brilliant writing aside, distinguishes itself from so-called “tragedy porn” because of the incredible compassion Reid offers her characters, even Alix. Reid excels in rendering the minutiae of growing up and adolescence into something wild, fascinating and beautiful. It’s telling that, until Alix really shows her true colors, I couldn’t pin down whether she’s good or bad. Reid writes her that tenderly.
Equally tender is Emira’s love for little Briar. She finally splits from the Chamberlains after Alix secretly releases the video of Emira getting stopped at the grocery store and it goes viral. But Emira still grieves her relationship with Briar. In an especially beautiful chapter, Reid writes:
“On her own and at her best, Briar was odd and charming, filled with intelligence and humor. But there was something about the actual work, the practice of caring for a small unstructured person, that left Emira feeling smart and in control…Without Briar, there were all these markers of time that would come to mean nothing. Was Emira just supposed to exist on her own at [6:45 p.m.]? Knowing that somewhere else it was Briar’s bathtime? One day, when Emira would say goodbye to Briar, she’d also leave the joy of having somewhere to be, the satisfaction of understanding the rules, the comfort of knowing what’s coming next, and the privilege of finding a home within yourself.”
Getting Away With It
Emira’s last words to Alix aren’t hateful; she doesn’t call her out for being the racist control-freak that she is. Instead, she reminds Alix what a wild and wonderful child she has, and how she needs to try a little harder to really see and appreciate her.
Such a Fun Age is a novel with a lot of layers. When I first read its epigraph, a quote from Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence that advises to only reward your kid an ice cream cone if they’re well behaved, I assumed it was about Briar and Emira’s role as her sitter. But now I see that it’s so obviously about Alix Chamberlin.
Society has rewarded this beautiful white woman who society all her life, no matter her behavior, and it never caught up to her. Emira publicly humiliates Alix when she dunks on her racism and manipulation on the local news, and she resigns as their primary childcare. But Alix doesn’t face any serious consequences other than having to go back to Care.com. Emira, on the other hand, ends up jobless, boyfriendless, and forever on the Internet as the victim of a horrible racist incident. Meanwhile the Alixes of the world continue unscathed in their well-packaged, relatively-mild villainy. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions. But, in the end, you’re still going to hell.