Question: Can true love blossom from a frustrating and uncomfortable scenario, specifically one where a young woman is racially profiled and accused of kidnapping a little girl? Answer: Apparently. Kind of. It’s complicated.
Kiley Reid’s stunning debut novel Such A Fun Age introduces us to Emira Tucker. She’s black, in her mid 20s and babysits part-time for a wealthy white couple, Alix and Peter Chamberlain. One night at 10.51pm, the Chamberlains call Emira while she’s at a friend’s birthday. It’s an emergency. They need her to pick up their 3-year-old daughter, Briar, and take her out of the house for a few hours while they deal with an incident at home. Emira likes the kid and could do with the extra cash, so she ditches the party and heads over.
Under Alix’s instruction, they go to the fancy supermarket around the corner from their house in an affluent area of Philadelphia. After a little while spent dancing with Briar in the aisles to "I Wanna Dance With Somebody", the shop feels "very white and very still" to Emira. An obnoxious customer decides that something about the pairing of Emira and Briar doesn’t "feel right" and alerts security. The store’s (white) security guard is soon accusing Emira of kidnapping the little blonde girl she's killing time with and refuses to let them leave the store. Informing the guard that she’s Briar’s babysitter is no use. They argue and he forces Emira to call Briar’s dad to the store. In the background, there’s a guy (also white) recording the altercation on his phone.
It’s a nauseatingly familiar scene. That’s what makes the knot in your stomach sink deeper and tangle tighter as you read Emira’s defiant but measured attempt to get the security guard to "step off". We’ve seen this scene on Twitter and all over the news on multiple occasions. We’ve seen how awfully this can play out for the black person on the receiving end of a lifetime of racial aggression, subliminal prejudice and unchecked privilege.
An old white guy turns up to save the day – this being the only plausible way to quell the bigoted concerns of other old white guys on the offensive these days. Peter Chamberlain runs into the supermarket to confirm the identities of his child and his babysitter, and Emira makes her way home. Not before the guy who filmed the incident on his phone catches up with her to check she’s alright. He’s tall, cute and white. His name is Kelley.
Kelley is furious about the situation on Emira’s behalf and offers her the video in case she wants to sue the supermarket and get the security guard fired. Emira declines. She’s still shaken but fighting to keep it together, and really doesn’t want the fuss, drama or added emotional tax that comes with sharing this sort of incident online. She asks Kelley to delete the video and they go their separate ways.
What sort of innovative novel would this be if their romance ended there, though? Save for the horrific circumstances, it makes for a Nora Ephron-worthy meet-cute. Emira and Kelley bump into each other again on the train. He asks to take her for a drink. This comes soon after Emira had playfully berated her best friend Zara (also black) for pursuing a hook-up with a white guy but Emira eventually gives in to Kelley's charm. He means well. He seems to get it. In fact, she eventually falls for him. And despite my own defensive apprehensions about 'white guy saviours' – the type who get too much personal satisfaction from swooping in and crying prejudice on behalf of black women nudged into volatile situations – I fell for him too.
Like Emira, I only wavered slightly at the realisation that Kelley exclusively dates black women. So he has a type. Sure. We learn of a racially charged incident at high school that quickly aligned Kelley with the popular black kids and from there, they became his closest friends. Cool. That doesn't automatically put him in the same camp as the type of people who fetishise black culture to make themselves feel better about where they stand on the woke scale. But this shift in friendship group – and later, romantic partners – made his white ex-girlfriend suspicious of his intentions. In the book, it's these perceived intentions that overwhelmingly dictate her perception of him and her own overcompensatory relationships with the black people in her life, too.
The most confusing thing of it all is that it's not a straightforward matter of right or wrong (except for the deliberately befriending black people to prove something to yourself about your apparent lack of bias. That's really gross). Instead, there's an enduring middle ground of good intention, uncomfortable conversation and confused perceptions had by people close to us but simultaneously distant from our own experiences.
What truly makes Such A Fun Age such a nuanced, attentive and brilliant novel, though, is that it's only as much about race and privilege as the white characters that our heroine Emira interacts with decide. At the centre of Emira's story is familiar territory to all twentysomething university graduates – those of us who ever felt plagued by the constant self-comparison to our more traditionally successful friends. Emira has this overwhelming love for Briar, a little girl she babysits three times a week in what doesn't feel like a 'real' job. All the while she's navigating an unyielding need to prove herself against the standards of adulthood – health insurance, regular income, being able to afford a round on a night out – that her best friends have reached before her.
The refreshing, funny and brilliant look at the politics of black girls dating the 'woke white guy' that the world needs right now is found in Reid's observation that allyship is crucial and yet complex. Having a white boyfriend who's at ease with saying the n-word (albeit in reference to what someone else had said) will never feel comfortable, no matter how many black girlfriends he's had or how angry he gets about racial prejudice. His earnestness mightn't combat the steady learnings both of you need to go through to arrive at the relationship sweet spot. It's made all the more tricky by the context in which Emira and Kelley are brought together. It doesn't make it impossible, it just makes it messy and truthful to a scenario that feels almost too pertinent to the world we live in right now.