11-year-old Pecola Breedlove believes she’s ugly. And nothing can change that. Nothing at all. Unless … unless she could trade in her eyes for beautiful blue ones. Now if she had those blue eyes, things would be different; because then, everyone would love her.
As part of my pledge to read more books from diverse authors, I picked up Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. I had seen it on more than one book list while I was trying to build my own. That, and the title which sounded light and happy, lead me to pick this one. Although the book wasn’t exactly light and happy, it wasn’t heavy either, it took me by surprise.
Such a Fun Age tells the story….
….of Emira – a black twenty-five-year-old, aimless and unambitious, yet to find her calling in life. In the meanwhile, she holds two part-time jobs, one of which is that of a baby-sitter for Alix Chamberlain’s three-year-old daughter Briar.
One evening while Emira is at the supermarket with Briar, a security guard detains her suspecting her of having kidnapped the child. A panicked Emira calls Briar’s father even as a man, Kelly, videotapes the incident.
The episode shakes up Alix who decides that she needs to take a greater interest in Emira’s life. Her stilted attempts at starting up a conversation puzzle Emira who has no need for this friendship. All she cares for is Briar, who she has a real and deep affection for.
Alix’s interest gradually grows into something bordering on a crush as she constantly tries to talk to Emira, gifts her expensive wine, tries to decode her interest in music, and looks through her phone when she isn’t around.
Things come to a head when Alix crosses all boundaries to ‘manage’ Emira’s life.
Such a Fun Age is hard to review, not because it doesn’t have much to say but because it evokes too many thoughts and you just want to talk about it rather than analyse it objectively. Which is why this will be more of a book discussion than a book review.
Bear with me, please.
We get to read the book through two perspectives, Emira’s and Alix’s
The difference between the two women couldn’t have been more stark and it’s not just about them being black or white. While Alix is a social media influencer, Emira doesn’t even have social media accounts. Alix is wealthy while Emira worries about her insurance. Reid brings out the difference beautifully, almost as if there can be no meeting point between the two.
That’s what it is at the beginning of the book.
Emira is as dismissive of Alix as Alix is of her. If anything, she doesn’t quite like her because Alix seems to prefer only her younger, calmer daughter while Emira’s ‘favourite human being’ is Briar, the older one precocious and talkative as she is.
While Alix changes after the supermarket incident, Emira doesn’t. On the contrary, she tries to pull away further because she doesn’t see babysitting as a permanent position. That is frustrating for Alix who is desperate to befriend her.
Also thrown into the mix, is Alix’s rather complicated childhood
When Alix was young, her family comes into a sudden inheritance and her parents go on a spending spree, to her acute embarrassment. Over the years, she learns to be comfortable with her wealth to the extent that she begins to take it, as well as the privilege that comes with it, for granted. Also, she turns into a bit of a snob. Of course all of this, without being aware of it.
When she sets about befriending Emira she starts looking at herself from Emira’s perspective and perhaps, on some subconscious level, the discomfort with her privilege returns, even while at a conscious level she remains unaware of it. With that, returns the embarrassment of her wealth. She takes great pains to convince Emira that she doesn’t splurge, that she’s a thrifty shopper, not that Emira is bothered at all.
Reid’s writing brings out all of that without actually mentioning any of it. That is exactly what good writing is. The undertones, the conscious and sub conscious motivations are all there for the reader to pick up on.
I have to talk about the incident at the supermarket
The reactions of the various characters to the incident took me by surprise. Emira has no wish to share the video with the world. The racist slur bothers her, but what troubles her more is her lack of a proper job which she feels would have given her some sort of standing in life, protecting her from incidents like that one. ’This wouldn’t have happened if you had a real f****** job,’ she muses to herself. In fact she is more worried that Briar would be taken from her than apalled at the incident itself. Perhaps because the scenario may not have been unusual for her. And that is just sad.
Alix and Kelly, (the man who records the incident) on the other hand are keen for some kind of a redressal. Alix stops shopping at the supermarket while Kelly suggests legal action or getting the guard dismissed, or going to the media.
I liked that this incident didn’t become the central point of the book in the way I had thought it would. That would have been predictable. Rather, it triggers something entirely unexpected.
The friendships in Such a Fun Age
Alix has a set of three friends who are almost cliquey in the way they interact. Even though Alix reaches out to them for every decision, specially when it has to do with Emira, I didn’t get a warm vibe from the group. It was somewhat similar with Emira who also has three friends she hangs out with. However, it is only with one of them (Zara) that I see a real connection.
….was a little tame but then it was somewhat in keeping with Emira’s character. It would have been odd if she had suddenly turned into an ambitious go-getter with a high-flying job. However, with her knack for children, I’d seen her as a full-time nanny. Come to think of it the job Alix offered her was quite perfect. But I’ll let that go.
If you like books that explore diversity you might want to read my review of Girl, Woman, Other.
Good Intentions aren’t everything
That is my biggest takeaway. The worst situations in the book arise from the best intentions. There’s the white woman who calls for the security guard at the supermarket with the intention of protecting Briar.
Then there’s Alix who feels her interest in Emira gives her some kind of right to manage her life. So consumed is she with her own good intentions that she doesn’t bother to check if that’s what Emira wants. In fact, no one is bothered about what Emira wants, not Alix or Kelly or Tamra (Alix’s friend who is also black and so feels she can have a say in Emira’s ‘upliftment’).
Before I wrap up I have one small complaint (there always is one, right?)
It’s the dialogue. Look at this: “Why you tryna play one-drop rule right now?” I don’t know if this is how youngsters these days talk to each other but it didn’t work for me.
Also, I still haven’t been able to work out the thought behind the title.
That aside, Such a Fun Age is a wonderfully layered account making it hard to put characters into protagonist-antagonist brackets. It talks about race and class and privilege without getting heavy or preachy.
If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you’ve reviewed it leave your link in the comments and I’ll drop by.
Last Thought: If books on race and class interest you, this one is a must-read.
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A group of young adults, girls and boys, from London’s East End (an area known for abject poverty and all the problems that come along with it) go to a small school – The Greenslade Secondary School. The teachers – most of them women, have grown up from among them. The men the kids see around them – fathers, brothers, uncles and neighbours – are scruffy and untidy. They dress in shabby ill-fitting clothes, barely bother to brush or bathe and are hardly conscious of basic hygiene let alone the aesthetics of their appearance.
Then one day, in walks a teacher and I quote, “his clothes are well-cut, pressed and neat, clean shoes, shaved, teeth sparkling, tie and handkerchief matching as if he’s stepped out of a ruddy bandbox. He’s big and broad and handsome“. Chances are he will be laughed right out of the school as a complete misfit. But this one sticks.
Rick Braithwaite, my character for today is from ER Braithwaite’s, part autobiographical book To Sir With Love. An engineer and an ex RAF aircrew, he joins the school because he cannot find any other employment largely due to him being black. He is faced with a group of completely unmotivated, semi literate pupils interested in everything but studying. Their attitudes range from indifference and defiance to hostility. He struggles through prejudices, his own as well as his students’ and years of deeply ingrained attitudes and habits. His firm belief in his students’ capabilities and their innate goodness sees them rise above themselves. He wins over not just their respect, love and trust but also that of their families. It’s one of the warmest feel-good books I’ve read. If you’re a teacher or a parent here’s an ideal you might like to adopt.
It’s hard to enumerate why I love this character
He is sensitive and intelligent and smart. He embodies all that is honest and wholesome. He wins over the reader completely so that you celebrate his victories and feel his pain when his students fail him, which they do many times over.
I love him for the trust he places in his students. I love the way he extends himself to things way beyond academics. He teaches the students to dress, to talk and to appreciate basic human values. He introduces them to Shakespeare. He takes them on trips to the museum and the opera. Sceptics predict chaos but the children do him proud. He sets high standards for himself and expects the same from his students.
And he’s passionate. His impassioned outbursts at the students are possibly my favourite parts of the book. I could have fallen in love with him as did the students.
Yes, yes I hear you – he seems too good to be true. The character is, say critics, too simplistic and a bit vain, his victories too easy. But for one moment banish that cynic in you and you’ll love him just as I do.
A note on Braithwaite’s take on racism
The first time I read this book I would have been barely in my teens. Shielded, as I was, from much of the world, I was barely aware of the severe racism rampant in the UK back then and it pretty much didn’t register even when I read the book multiple times. Perhaps I was too focussed on the story or too young to understand the full extent of its horror.
Re-reading it now I find it more than just the story of a wonderful teacher, which it is. Interwoven along with it, are glimpses of the life of a black man and the racism he has to face. Braithwaite isn’t exempt despite having fought in the war as a member of the RAF (Royal Air Force). He talks of his shock and disappointment at being discriminated against. He fails to find a job, a lady refuses to sit next to him in the bus and later when he’s out with his (almost) girlfriend, Gillian, he’s insulted by a waiter in a restaurant.
Racism in America versus racism Britain
Another interesting bit was where he talks of racism in America versus racism Britain. In America, he says, it is much more open, hence can be opposed. Also, each incident is followed by positive change. In Britain, on the other hand, people barely acknowledge its presence. In fact they might even look down upon the Americans for how open and rampant racism is. And yet it thrives in Britain — silently, in a passive aggressive way, making it harder to fight against. In fact as a white person you may not even be aware of its existence. A conversation between Gillian and him goes like this:
‘Didn’t you know that such things happened?’ ‘Not Really. I have heard and read about it in a vague sort of way, but I had never imagined it happening to me.’
So that’s one more reason you must pick up this book if you haven’t read it already.
Don’t forget to drop by next week for yet another fascinating character. It’s a boy this time – a teenager – a very very different teen who’s out on an investigative trail. And do share your favourites. It’s no fun if I do all the talking :-).
Linking up to ABC Wednesday , the fun alphabetical weekly challenge.
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