When Emira’s employer, Alix, asks her to babysit her child late at night, and doesn’t even mind that she has been drinking, Emira agrees because she needs the money. Emira and her friend take the child to a superstore, where they are interrogated by a security guard and a customer who imply that they may have kidnapped the child. Emira and her friend are black, and the child, Briar, is white. Another customer films the incident and it sets in train a series of events.
Emira loves caring for Briar, but she knows her life has to move on. She is short of money, she doesn’t have a career, and she has no clear direction. She is also facing a milestone which is unfamiliar to UK readers – she is soon to turn 26, when she will no longer be covered by her parents’ health insurance.
Meanwhile, Alix is struggling with her own issues. She and her husband have moved to Philadelphia to live a more family-friendly life, but Alix is missing New York. She is anxious that her career as an influencer and a public speaker will suffer under the twin burdens of the move and motherhood. And it’s 2016 and she is hopeful she will be taken on by the Clinton campaign.
Such a Fun Age hits all the notes of contemporary women’s fiction – female friendship, the conflicting demands of career and children, searching for purpose and the elusive meaning of success – but it has a subtlety and depth that allows it to take on bigger social issues, and hold the interest of people (like me!) who might normally run a mile from the term ‘contemporary women’s fiction’.
This is partly, but not only, because of the dynamic of race in the story, the way it complicates every interaction. It highlights the dilemma that is faced by paid carers. Emira feels she needs to move on from her babysitting gig to gain the benefits and status of a career, but she is held back because she has formed such a strong bond with Briar, and is conscious that Alix does not care for Briar as she does for her other daughter.
Emira is also unnerved by the way Alix tries to create a bond with her, and make her part of the family, while she is clearly in a subservient role as an employee. The more Alix tries to draw her in, the greater the awkwardness between them. The different elements of race, class, age and even temperament are all interlinked in their difficult relationship, which is further highlighted when Emira has an uncomfortable encounter with a high-achieving black friend of Alix’s.
While your sympathies are with Emira throughout, there is room for interpretation in the behaviour of the other characters. Her best friend Zara has her best interests at heart, but that doesn’t stop her giving flawed and contradictory advice. Emira’s perceptions of the significant people in her life shift as she learns more about them. The novel also discusses in frank detail the issue of money, right down to the cost of rent and the dollars per hour Emira is earning.
There are also some fun scenes between the women’s friendship groups and heaps of zeitgeisty references – from the partying and social media antics of Emira and her friends to the sophisticated New York lifestyles of Alix’s.
Such a Fun Age does rely on one big coincidence that might give readers pause. There are also elements of the story that are set up but don’t explode the way you might expect. These two facts make me wonder if the author was going to take the story in a particular direction and then changed her mind.
It means that the story is less hard-hitting but more subtle, and ambiguous, than it might have been. It gives the reader more space to consider the decisions, and the responsibility, of the different characters.
A note on the narration: I loved the narration by Nicole Lewis, which brought to life the different characters and beautifully evoked the different moods and settings – from drunk clubbing to quietly poignant moments with Emira and Briar.