Such A Fun Age: why everyone is talking about Kiley Reid’s debut novel

Written by Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age is on track to become one of the most-talked about debut novels of 2020. Here, she talks to Stylist about the complicated nature of domestic work, and why class is the biggest divide between her characters.

“Everyone is going to be talking about this book, you really should read it,” is a sentence I hear a lot as a book reviewer. It’s one I utter a lot less often though, because there are very few titles that live up to the “everyone’s going to be talking about it” hype.

But when it comes to Kiley Reid’s debut novel Such A Fun Age, let me assure you: everyone is going to be talking about this book. In fact, they already are, despite it landing on shelves a mere three weeks ago. It won’t be long until it’s dominating your book club, your train carriage and your Instagram feed, if it hasn’t already. The buzz is deafening.

The novel has already garnered praise from authors including Jessie Burton, Elizabeth Day and Emma Straub, and TV rights have been acquired by Lena Waithe’s production company. Reid is executive producing the show, and it’s fair to say that life has been busy for her in the weeks around the book’s release. In fact, the only time we can squeeze in for an interview is while she’s waiting to catch a flight from Rhode Island to her home in Philadelphia, a cacophony of airport announcements regularly going off in the background of our phone call.

Such A Fun Age begins as 25-year-old Emira, who is on a night out with her friends, gets a call from the Chamberlains, the family she babysits for. Vandals have attacked their house, and they need her to take their toddler daughter Briar out while they talk to the police. Briar’s mum Alix suggests Emira and Briar go to the local grocery store, a high-end shop similar to Whole Foods.

It is in this grocery store that a white woman reports Emira, who is black, to the shop’s security guard. Why? Because she’s concerned that Briar, who is white, isn’t Emira’s child. What follows is a tense confrontation, in which Emira is accused of putting Briar’s safety at risk. The stand-off between Emira and the security guard is only resolved when Briar’s father comes to the shop to vouch for her.

Resolving to make things right, Alix sets out to make her employee a friend and a part of the family, rather than just a babysitter. Unbeknownst to her, though, the supermarket incident has set in motion a chain of events –one which will see an old acquaintance of Alix’s upend both her and Emira’s lives.

Is Such a Fun Age based on a true story?

Reid was inspired by her own experiences as a nanny for the wealthy, although she’s very clear that Such A Fun Age is not a piece of autobiographical fiction.

“It’s a complete work of fiction, but I was absolutely inspired by my time as a child caregiver, from the foods to the clothing to the places I would go, to the relationships between nannies and mothers that I would often be privy to just from being around children so much,” she tells Stylist.

She says the book began as an exploration of a complicated three-way relationship between people; in the case of Such A Fun Age the focus is on Emira, Alix, and a man named Kelley, who films the encounter in the supermarket.

“I find that three is kind of a magic number when it comes to storytelling,” says Reid. “I wanted a new and precarious relationship and I’ve always been interested in domestic and emotional labour. So I think the combination of domestic work and a three-way relationship kind of sparked the idea for me.”

Is Such a Fun Age about race and racism?

Given the opening scenes of the book, readers will be correct in assuming that Such A Fun Age has something to say about race and racism. But the novel’s major preoccupation is actually class and wealth, or the lack thereof.

Emira is about to turn 26, at which point she’ll lose the ability to use her parents’ health insurance, and she’s surrounded by friends who are moving on to the next steps of their careers –and the money that brings –while she’s still floundering, unsure what she wants to do. Meanwhile, Alix is financially stable and able to afford to pay someone else to look after her oldest child, with friends who are equally wealthy.

“I think that talking about race without talking about class is just about a moot point,” says Reid. “The income and lifestyles of the different black women in this novel are all very different.”

Reid says that she was keen to explore “class solidarity” through the novel, particularly through Alix, whose three closest friends include a black woman. The first time we meet Alix’s core friendship group is through a phone conversation she has with them following the supermarket incident. It’s illuminating: the women make what happened to Emira all about Alix, advising her on how she can make her babysitter her friend (and therefore feel better about what happened), before swiftly moving on to how Alix can lose the weight she’s so desperate to get rid of.

“Alix, like many people I think, doesn’t have a problem interacting with people within her class circle, no matter what what colour they are,” says Reid. 

Is class the most important theme of Such a Fun Age, then?

It’s class, not race, that proves the biggest divide between Alix and Emira, and between Emira and Kelley, who – spoiler alert – goes from stranger in a supermarket to her boyfriend over the early part of the book. Kelley wants Emira to stop babysitting for the Chamberlains for a number of reasons; he says it’s not a viable career option. The pressure that Kelley, who is a few years older, applies to Emira’s choice of job is not the only negative about him (in this reader’s opinion). Indeed, there’s a moment early in their relationship when they’re out on a date, and Kelley tells a story that made me physically recoil from the page; if I was Emira, I’d have dumped him right then and there.

“What was most important for me was that the reader was dating Kelley along with Emira,” says Reid. “I think it’s important to note that she’s 25; she sees Kelley, he seems interested and she thinks, ‘Why not? Let’s give this a try.’ And so I wanted both her and the reader to experience the fullness of dating someone. And sometimes he nails it and he’s so charming and wonderful to her, and sometimes he really messes up. I think Emira is figuring out what kind of person he could be to her, if it’s just a one night stand or if it’s something longer.”

Such a Fun Age is a love story, albeit not the kind you might expect

While Emira and Kelley’s relationship is key to the plot, it’s Emira’s love for Briar that forms the true love story of Such A Fun Age. It’s also the most interesting relationship dynamic; she is paid to look after Briar and paid to be part of Alix and Peter’s family, but it’s that very payment that makes her relationship with Briar and the rest of the Chamberlains so precarious.

The nature of domestic labour is something that has always fascinated Reid. “Many families will very naturally say, ‘Alright, this person is working in our family. What’s the best thing that we can do for them? Let’s make them part of the family.’ But the problem that often arises is that, by making a person part of the family, you’re denying yourself the role of employer. You don’t often give them things that protect them as employees, like sick days or vacation days or a break or two weeks’ notice. 

“There’s a moment in the book where Emira thinks, ‘You know, maybe I should just quit.’ But she feels like she can’t do that because she would not have a job. And I think it’s those rights as an employee that she’s missing. They make her feel powerless, and then make her feel embarrassed that she’s babysitting for a living.

“It’s a complicated thing because you’re not just paying someone to handle something clinical, like paperwork. And so those lines between family and employer get really blurred. And unfortunately I think that it comes at the cost of the employee most often.”

In Such A Fun Age, there are costs for both Emira and Alix. And, throughout the novel there are shocking, tender, funny, infuriating and insightful moments, making it a must-read for the Stylist team. 

So trust me wholeheartedly when I say that everyone’s going to be talking about this book. You really should read it, ASAP. 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid is available for £12.99 at Foyles.

Images: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd

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