Mini Review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

About mini reviews:

Maybe you’re not an audio book person, or maybe you are. I provide mini reviews of audio books and give a recommendation on the format. Was this book improved by a voice actor? Would a physical copy have been better? Perhaps they complement each other? Read on. . .

Emira Tucker is a college grad, but the twenty-five year-old black woman is a bit stuck in limbo. She still has an apartment and a roommate, has never dated seriously, and works as a part-time babysitter, meaning she’s financially left behind her three best girlfriends who have salaries.

Alix (that’s “uh-leeks”) Chamberlain is a white self-made businesswoman at thirty-two, adapted to New York City life after changing her whole high school self, back when she was just “Alex.” But after she marries a small station TV anchor and has two daughters, they move to Pittsburgh. She hires a babysitter via Craigslist, sight unseen (meaning she doesn’t know Emira is black), and this is how Emira enters her life. Alix struggles to maintain who she was in NYC while living in Pennsylvania, so she clings to Emira as a potential friend and pet project.

On the evening news, Alix’s husband says, without thinking, something construed as racist and sexist by viewers. After a segment in which a black boy proposes a white girl go to prom with him, Alix’s husband says he hopes the girl got her father’s permission. Around midnight, someone eggs his house, one of which breaks a window. After the police are called, Alix contacts Emira, even though it’s late, even though Emira is at a club with her girlfriends, to come get Alix’s toddler dressed just as she is. Just get her out of the house to avoid stressing her out — that is Alix’s rationale. Emira and the toddler head to a local grocery store at which the Chamberlain’s shop, an expensive yuppie store, so the toddler can look at nuts and coffees (this toddler is unusual). There, Emira is accused of kidnapping this sweet little white toddler because she is a black woman dressed in revealing clothes. The scene is much shorter than the synopsis of the book would lead you to believe. It’s also not the focus.

While I thought Such a Fun Age would be a book that circled around one major issue, much like The Hate U Give, it isn’t. Rather than being a statement about racism, it demonstrates how racism affects us all every day, as passive observers, perpetrators, or victims. Emira doesn’t want the security guard fired, nor the store to be punished. She’s not into social media and doesn’t want to share the video that another customer, a guy named Kelley, has taken of the event.

Yet, Emira is subjected to microaggressions throughout the novel, both racist and ageist, and it comes from people of different races and genders, too. For example, Kelley is white, but he wants Emira to release the video he took because racism is wrong. All of Kelley’s friends and ex-girlfriends are black. Why? Later, Alix’s only black friend, a principal in NYC, asks Emira what’s “up under” her hair in some weird effort to bond on their first meeting over black women hair care that makes Emira uncomfortable. Are such personal questions acceptable because both women are black?

The most compelling part of Such a Fun Age is the way people try to control Emira with the motive that they are “helping.” Whether it’s Emira’s three best girlfriends, or Alix and her three best girlfriends, or Emira’s new boyfriend, Kelley, there’s always someone who thinks they can fix this young woman, who is given little say in her own life. Get her a real job, send her to grad school, make her more involved in social justice, make her apartment look more “adult,” make her take a stand she doesn’t believe in. The novel feels like a crossover between the standard female friendship quartet, like Sex and the City, and real-life situations that happen all around us.

There are layers and layers to the conversation author Kiley Reid created that I would never be able to cover in one review, making this an excellent book club pick. The main question might be “What is racist and what is happenstance, and who decides?” And no one is divided neatly into a category based on race, making the story compelling and realistic. Because it’s not trying to make a point, but instead make you think, Such a Fun Age was a winner in my book.

I was impressed with the depth and care that narrator Nicole Lewis brought to the book. If a character says, “umm” then there is an inflection that gives it meaning that I wouldn’t have caught on page, such as raising the “umm” at the end to make it sound like “Yeah, I’ll pretend to consider what you said but I’m not doing any of that.” Many Goodreads reviewers noted the “horrible” dialogue that I found sounded perfectly natural in the audiobook format. While I believe Such a Fun Age would do just okay as a text, the audiobook is delightfully dynamic and engaging.

37 comments

  1. Your review enumerates the nuances this book contain. I listened to it and the narrator was good. The book left me a bit underwhelmed probably because I didn’t get to hear from and understand Emira. Everyone wanted to tell her what to do and I had different expectations going into the book. That I would hear from her. Alix got on my nerves and that weird relationship triangle from high school seemed silly to me. But I’m glad to hear your thoughts on this one

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    • I thought Emira was living a rather simplistic life and didn’t see anything wrong with that, except that she DID want more. When she got her new job at the end and didn’t want to move on from that, I realized that she is a character whose main goal is contentment, and I appreciated see such a character. Typically, we read about people on the up or crashing down. What about people are happy to just to fit into something?

      Alix was horribly obnoxious and played the victim card so hard I wanted to push her down a steep hill. I love how Reid tries to trick us into caring about Alix by having this character empower women. Somewhere way too far into the book I realized that this lady is not a great person, and it’s possible she was getting more from her work through improved self-esteem than she was by being of service to anyone.

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      • I didn’t have a problem with Emira being content with her life but I guess my biggest problem was that I thought the book would be about her predominantly and I didn’t feel like that at all. She just felt like an after thought to me and I think that’s one of the things I didn’t really like. I felt like I read a misleading synopsis or something so my expectations were wrong 😉

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  2. I’m just reading this at the moment – I’m only up to the end of Part One, but I’m loving it so far, and I haven’t noticed any particular problems with the dialogue. Reid is so good, as you say, at exploring the subtle power dynamics in Emira’s relationships.

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    • Everything is so nuanced, and it was refreshing to read a book in which things weren’t clear. My concern about a lot of social justice novels that are being published right now is they make clear who is wrong and who is right. For instance, even though Starr’s boyfriend in The Hate U Give did a lot of good, kind things, he was clearly “other,” the enemy in some way who would never “get it.”

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  3. Great review! I’ve also recently read this and like you I was also quite impressed with the nuanced portrayal of racism, and how Alix tried to become Emira’s friend by being overly friendly by pretending that the differences between them existed. There was a lot to unpack about this novel, and I found myself thinking about it long after I’d finished it, which is always a good sign. And I found the dialogue quite natural, even when I was reading it. I’m glad this turned out to be a great read for you. 🙂

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    • Gilana, welcome! And thanks for your comment. I was surprised so many people on Goodreads hated the dialogue, but I’m still parsing out why they hated it. One person even wrote they felt like this book was written by a white lady, and I’m not even sure what to take from that.

      It was interesting the ways in which the characters try to endear themselves to each other. That moment when Alix’s friend, the principal, tried to connect with Emira by asking personal questions about her hair. SO AWKWARD. And every time you see Kelley he’s with multiple black people. What does it mean, and does it mean anything? I can see how this book definitely keeps a reader thinking.

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      • I’ve never actually heard any negative comments about the dialogue, but if I had to guess it might be because it’s hyperrealistic—some expressions are spelled exactly as they’re enunciated, like “Ohmygod” and “Holup, holup!” and “Donchyou whatever me”, which might strike some readers as trying too hard. It didn’t particularly bother me, since I liked how vividly it paints a character’s voice, but I can imagine how this would sound better on audio than it looks on paper.

        I’m miffed on behalf of Reid for that comment… Perhaps they thought she was trying too hard with the dialogue.

        I know! But oh man, that scene with Tamra was so interesting. Tamra code-switches and speaks in a way that’s closer to Emira than Alix, despite the class difference, so I could she was trying EXTRA hard there to be friends with Emira. And yes, that Kelley scene—when he first arrived at the bar with all his black friends it was described as looking like “the intro of an extremely problematic music video”, which I found hilarious. I loved how Reid managed to give the potentially contentious subject of race and class a comic touch. It’s an interesting novel for sure.

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        • I felt like Reid was so on point in capturing our culture at this exact moment, and for that reason I think this book can live beyond this moment.

          It’s so cool to read how the dialect is written. I have a background in African American literature and history, and I always loved reading in dialect. People like Paul Laurence Dunbar and Zora Neale Hurston captured the way people sounded at that time, even without the benefit of a recording device, and Reid is doing something similar.

          You’re completely right about Tamara code-switching. I know what it is and how it functions, but I stupidly didn’t even think about it while in that term while I was listening, probably because I’m usually driving while listening.

          Thanks so much for stopping by! I’m going to head over to your blog and check it out. I hope to hear from you again; you’re thoughts are interesting!

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          • Exactly! I loved how she focused instead on all those small moments that people don’t usually notice, instead of the form of racism we usually see on media (like the grocery store incident). I feel like this kind of racism is really a hallmark of this moment.

            I’ve never read Dunbar before but I’ve read Hurston, and I also loved her work. And I agree—Reid does something similar, and she does it quite well.

            Hmmm, I reviewed my copy and it seems she didn’t code-switch as I remembered! My memory fails me. 😅 She did pull up more “honey”s and “girl”s though in an effort to be chummy. Maybe that was the trying-hard component I remembered.

            Thank you! I also enjoyed hearing your thoughts. 🙂

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  4. I’m glad to hear Nicole Lewis does a stellar job! I find a quality narrator can make less than ideal writing sound completely normal. In my experience, you need to understand the flow of dialogue when reading things that might be “stilted”. That’s just how people talk!

    Wow. There seems to be so much subtlety in this book. I will admit, I don’t know much about racism and ageism and microaggressions… I mean, I know what they are and how to recognize them in some cases, but not all. Do you think a poorly-informed white woman like me could pick up the same things you did in reading Such a Fun Age?

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    • I think this book will test and stretch a reader’s empathy in good ways. You may empathize with Alix when she’s empowering young woman, and Emira when she’s being harassed at the store, and Kelley when he has to defend his choice of music. You’ll empathize with the little girl who feels that her mom doesn’t love her, and Emira’s best friend she when she gets a new job that you ALMOST feel like she doesn’t deserve. But then all of these people will flippty-flop, making you wonder if your empathy was misplaced. And that’s okay, because it’s more realistic.

      Another interesting facet of this book is that you can constantly ask, “How would I feel if this were me?” and it will give you a new perspective.

      It’s not a fuzzy read, so maybe save it for post-pandemic when the neurons are clacking on all cylinders.

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  5. Hmm very interesting that the dialogue doesn’t cross over from audio to the page. I suspect this is how my writing comes across too-I’m saying in aloud in my head and it sounds great in there-probably doesn’t transfer so well to the page (sigh).

    I like the idea of this book as a book club pick! Racism is such a difficult subject for everyone to approach these days, but I’m so glad we are talking about it more and more! Really popular books like this are hopefully making more people aware of how pervasive racism still is.

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    • And it’s not a Big Racism book, it covers all these smaller moments that make you go “hmmm” because it feels like someone is trying to be nice, but maybe they’re being patronizing or belittling and don’t even think about it because they’ve got this “poor [fill in the person]” thing going on. Poor young woman, poor black woman, poor woman living in an apartment with no ambition, etc.

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  6. Great review! I definitely want to pick this up at some point now. Maybe I’ll even try the audiobook. 🙂 Contemporary has been hit or miss for me for a while, because I tend to find it straightforward and predictable lately, but your discussion of the nuance in the relationships and dialogue relieve those worries for me. This sounds like a fantastic exploration of timely themes. So glad you enjoyed it!

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    • Do you have a long commute to work or like to exercise? I really enjoyed the audiobook, but other commenters are now making me feel like the physical copy would be just fine, too. It turns out that the dialogue is written how it’s said, and I think that turned some Goodreaders off, but I found it realistic and immersive. Definitely nuanced, definitely not straight-forward.

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      • I like to listen to music while I walk or jog, that would probably be the easiest time to work audiobooks into my routine. I just find it much more difficult to stay focused and take everything in when I’m not seeing the words with my eyes, but I think if I keep trying eventually I’ll acclimate to it. It is good to hear that the physical copy would suffice though, just in case! 🙂

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  7. I really enjoyed this book (my review here https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2019/12/20/book-review-kiley-reid-such-a-fun-age/ ) and it’s fascinating to hear about the extra aspects you got from the audiobook, so thank you for sharing this! I found the book challenged my kneejerk liberalism, especially when Alix and Kelley were accusing each other in that scene. It’s stayed with me, too. I like your exploration of how everyone is trying to improve Emira’s life, that brought out an aspect I hadn’t completely considered before.

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    • I think that at least in The States that we are pretty dismissive of people in their twenties, and it’s a balance to get right. Instead of dismissing them or foisting our help upon them, this book made me realize it’s important to provide opportunities to mentor or guide or help younger people, but if they seem hesitant or say “no,” then let it go. Emira constantly seemed like she wasn’t sure what Alix was even trying to do, and she was definitely uncomfortable at Thanksgiving when Alix’s friends were trying to push Emira into grad school or a new job, as if she came from some horrible family that didn’t push or prepare her for the real world. Although their introduction is brief, I thought her family sounded like a lovely bunch of craftsmen.

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      • Yes, we are horrible about millennials here, too, so hopefully that will give some people pause as well. I was mainly struck by how difficult it is to strike a balance between supporting and respecting people from different backgrounds to us and overstepping or being incredibly patronising. But that goes for people of different ages, too.

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  8. Great comment stream! It is very easy sometimes for a white liberal to be too try-hard, and the most infuriating character to come up against is someone who doesn’t want to be helped and maybe doesn’t even realise she needs to be helped. It seems this book has expressed all this really well. You don’t say and Wikipedia doesn’t say if Reid is person of colour, which would make a difference to how I read the book. I see she has an MFA but perhaps this is true of all young US authors now.

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    • Reid is a 36-year-old black woman. The interesting thing about her having an MFA and having workshopped a lot of this novel in her program is that it’s actually quite uncommon to see a novel in an MFA program. You’re basically hoping your classmates remember what is going on between the different workshop sessions that focus on your writing each semester (usually it’s 2-3, spread out over four months). Instead, we read and workshop stories mostly for the sake of convenience and getting more out of our peers in terms of feedback.

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  9. Great review! This sounds like it raises a lot of interesting questions and I like that it doesn’t seem to be so straightforward in addressing or answering them.

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