Race and class in Rittenhouse Square

‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid

3 minute read
A compelling read for Philadelphia and beyond. (Image courtesy of G.P. Putnam's Sons.)
A compelling read for Philadelphia and beyond. (Image courtesy of G.P. Putnam's Sons.)

2015 may have been a time of hope and opportunity for some, but Emira Tucker is at loose ends. In Such a Fun Age, Fishtown resident Kiley Reid’s Philly-set novel, Emira lacks the direction and ambition of her friends, but is acutely aware that her next birthday will bounce her off her parents’ health insurance. Her job as a part-time babysitter for two-year-old Briar Chamberlain is not getting her any closer to stability.

A home in Rittenhouse Square

Briar’s mother, Alix, is a wealthy white woman who has recently moved with her family from New York City to Rittenhouse Square after her husband Peter lands a job as a co-anchor on the local news. Alix is an accomplished letter-writer who has parlayed this skill into a growing business as a life coach and public speaker.

Alix and Emira, a 25-year-old Black woman, adopt a distant but professional relationship, until Peter makes a racist remark on-air and his family’s house is egged and a window broken. The Chamberlains call 911 and ask Emira to leave with Briar so the child doesn’t witness the police presence. But a wrenching incident caught on camera surprises Emira and Briar on their sojourn in the city, with major consequences for both the Chamberlains and their babysitter. Emira wants to move on, but things get more complicated. She also must come to terms with her job’s lack of sustainability, which is complicated by her fondness for Briar.

Capitalism, class, and race

Capitalism and class reverberate throughout the novel, and this savvy, nuanced writer shows their impact across our lives and intimate relationships. Even people are commodities, as in Reid’s sly but chilling line, “Alix had a knack for acquiring merchandise back in New York, and searching for a babysitter in Philadelphia was no different.” Emira becomes a prize for the novel’s white characters, who fight for her trust and love while objectifying her and projecting their own needs—which include assuaging their unacknowledged white guilt and validating their performative wokeness—onto her. Ultimately, Alix crosses a line that will have dramatic repercussions for the others.

Alix could easily be read as the novel’s villain, and she won’t win points with Philadelphians for her disdain for our city, but Reid paints her with a sympathetic, even-handed, and gently humorous eye. Chapters alternate equally between the perspectives of Emira and Alix, showing how both women are caught in a perniciously racist system—though only one of them has the luxury of ignoring it.

Hilarious and heartbreaking

Ultimately, Reid asks how our relationships, values, and sense of self can survive in a society built on racism, classism, and privilege. Which is not to say that Such a Fun Age is not a fun read. Reid’s tone is warm and gimlet-eyed, and her prose fleet. The novel occasionally verges into spiky social satire and the climax credibly veers from hilarious to heartbreaking. It is no wonder that Lena Waithe’s production company has optioned Such a Fun Age. It is a story that offers laughter, tears, and rage—some readers may feel recognition, and others discomfort.

What, When, Where

Such a Fun Age. By Kiley Reid. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, December 31, 2019. 320 pages, hardcover; $26.00. Visit here.

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