Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on December 31, 2019
A striking and surprising debut novel from an exhilarating new voice, Such a Fun Age is a page-turning and big-hearted story about race and privilege, set around a young black babysitter, her well-intentioned employer, and a surprising connection that threatens to undo them both.
Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living showing other women how to do the same. A mother to two small girls, she started out as a blogger and has quickly built herself into a confidence-driven brand. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night. Seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, a security guard at their local high-end supermarket accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make it right.
But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.
With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what it means to make someone “family,” the complicated reality of being a grown up, and the consequences of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
I don’t remember where I saw this book – it must have been on some sort of “upcoming Winter 2019 releases we’re most excited for” list, and I put it on my Amazon wishlist. It then became a Reese’s Book Club pick soon thereafter, and when COVID rumblings began, it was nigh impossible to find a copy for under $20. Luckily someone in a book buy/sell/trade group I’m in was selling their copy for $12, and so I picked it up as a birthday gift to myself. I’m super glad it did.
Applicable PopSugar 2020 Prompts: A bildungsroman, A book that passes the Bechdel test, A book featuring one of the seven deadly sins (pride, greed), A book with a bird on the cover, A book by a WOC
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
Emira is a young, 25 year old African American woman who is scraping by on two part time jobs – a babysitting job 3 days a week, and a typist for her local Green Party office the other 2 – and dreading turning 26 soon, because then she will lose her parents’ health insurance coverage. She is feeling behind her friends, who are starting to go from having a “job” to having a “career,” but despite her yearning to be a better adult, she adores spending three days a week with Briar – the precocious two year old she babysits, a true bright spot in her life. If only it came with benefits, paid time off – the trappings of a career.
Alix, on the other hand, is a true career woman. She has two daughters of her own – Briar and Catherine – and makes her living helping other young women learn to speak up for their worth, to write and ask for what they truly believe in. She is the perfect white suburban Instagram mom, and she doesn’t know much at all about her babysitter, Emira, beyond the fact that she does a good job with Briar.
One day, there is a family emergency and Emira is asked to come take Briar out of the house for a while until the situation resolves itself. Unfortunately, Emira is coming from a club – she was out celebrating a friend’s birthday, and she is dressed the way any 25 year old would be who went clubbing at 11 PM on a weekend. Emira dutifully comes and takes Briar with her, and they – along with her best friend Zara – go to the local bourgeois market to look at the bagged teas and mixed nuts, things little Briar adores. A well-intentioned older woman sees Briar with Emira and reports her to the security guard, who wheels on Emira and says she sure doesn’t look like she is babysitting right now, in what she’s wearing – looks more like a kidnapping.
Of course, this is all a big misunderstanding. But a young guy named Kelley who was standing nearby gets it all on film, and sends it to Emira’s email before deleting it from his phone. He urges Emira to take the footage of the racist police officer to the press, but Emira prefers to be under the radar, to let it all go. Meanwhile Alix is dancing around the issue, trying desperately to not be racist – so much so that it makes her a little racist. And it turns out that Kelley, Emira and Alix are more linked together than they might have initially known.
The Bottom Line
This is one of those books written by a WOC that really needs to make it into everyone’s hands. It takes the concept of white privilege and extends it even deeper – even if I have the best of intentions, as a white woman will I ever be able to empathize the way I’d like with women of color? Do Alix’s painstaking methods to not be racist actually turn out to be even more racist, though they were cloaked in love and good intentions? There were some feelings that came up as I read this that I had to sit with, because they were genuinely things I needed to sit with as a white woman with that white privilege.
Nobody in this book is flawless. Alix has great intentions, and so does Emira, but they are both capable of some shitty stuff – this just makes the book more real and honest, soul-wrenchingly honest. You feel for Emira, who doesn’t want this job but who loves little Briar in a way that she knows she’ll never feel again, and you feel for Alix, wanting so hard to just see Emira as a member of the family who fails time and time again. And Briar herself – I just adore her. Most little children in literature are too precocious for their age, but Briar hit perfectly – she turns three near the beginning of the book, and she acts just like it. She says and does things that are spot on for her age, and it just makes you love her and her toddler innocence. I teared up once at this book, and it was at the bond between Emira and Briar. If you’ve ever worked with kids in any capacity – a teacher, a babysitter, nanny or after school teacher – you’ll intrinsically understand their relationship, the love of a sticky, sweaty toddler who is not yours and will one day not even remember your name.
You won’t be comfortable reading this book. And that’s OK, you aren’t supposed to. But sit with the feelings it gives you, and lean inward to understand them a little bit more – you might be surprised. I truly enjoyed this story, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is looking for a good contemporary that can also teach something, too. Throughout the funny moments and the sweet ones is an undercurrent of what it means to be a well-intentioned and kindhearted person who can still be a little bit racist – both Alix and Kelley are in their own ways – and I think that is a critical message today. You’d do well to let Emira, Briar, Alix and Kelley into your heart this year, too.
“One day, Emira when Emira would say good-bye 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.”
“Briar would say good-bye in yearbook signatures and through heartbroken tears and through emails and over the phone. But she’d never say good-bye to Emira, which made it seem that Emira would never be completely free from her. For the rest of her life and for zero dollars an hour, Emira would always be Briar’s sitter.”