Welcome to Camp ToB 2020, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books. This summer, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2020—two books per month, two weeks per book—that the ToB fandom chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel and talk it out on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress. At the close of each month you’ll decide which of the two books advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you’ll pick one of our three finalists to win an automatic berth in the 2021 Tournament of Books.
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Andrew Womack: Camp ToB 2020 may be halfway over, or is it halfway full? I think we’re about to find out, as we launch into Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid’s debut novel. This week we’re discussing the first half, in which we meet Emira, a 25-year-old Black woman who works for Alix, a privileged white mom influencer, caring for Alix’s three-year-old daughter, Briar. While at the grocery store one evening with Briar, Emira is accosted by another shopper who alerts store security out of suspicion (i.e., racism) that this Black woman has kidnapped a white girl. Immediately, we meet Kelley, who records the incident on his phone, and who then begins dating Emira. Along the way we learned Kelley dated Alix in high school some 15 years ago, until they broke up in a spectacularly embarrassing (for Alix) way. The first half ends right as all these characters and storylines collide—it’s quite the cliffhanger.
Here to discuss the first half of Such a Fun Age with us is this week’s Activity Leader, Jenni Moore Myers. Hi Jenni—please introduce yourself to the campers!
Jenni Moore Myers: Hi Andrew! I live in Raleigh, NC, and I’m a science writer. I get to read nonfiction all day, every day. I’ve always loved to read. As a kid, my mom would hide my bag of library books to keep me from reading them all in one day. A good book can make me neglect everything else, and then I can’t wait to talk about it.
Andrew: You came to the right place! Sounds like you can burn through a TBR pile. What else are you reading?
Jenni: I tend to take on several books at once. Right now I’m reading The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg from our public library’s Books on the Go program and the audio version of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. As well as, of course, Such a Fun Age, which I purchased from Quail Ridge Books, my favorite indie bookstore in town.
Andrew: Shoutout to Quail Ridge Books, our ToB 2020 match sponsor!
Jenni: I’ve been reading along with the ToB for a few years and read The Morning News daily. I’m excited to join y’all as an activity leader!
Andrew: And we’re excited to have you here. So let’s start at the beginning of Such a Fun Age. Everything really gets boiling when the woman at the grocery store, Market Depot, calls security, assuming Emira had stolen Briar. Right away, we know this book is aware. Whoever the woman at the store is, she’s someone we’re all familiar with, whether or not we’ve read this book.
Jenni: Although I knew the grocery store scene was coming, its impact was no less forceful. Reid writes of the security guard who harasses Emira and accuses her of kidnapping, “His eyes said, I see you now. I know exactly who you are, and Emira held her breath as he began to call for backup.”
This story is about racism, overt and subtle.
Andrew: Exactly. And this is the contemporary racism that consistently shows up in our social media feeds. The Market Depot woman is who everyone now calls a Karen. I’m white, and have not been the target of racism, but by opening with this incident the book made me recognize what was happening. I wonder if I would have understood that as immediately if I’d read this 10 years ago.
Jenni: Ten years feels like a lifetime ago (since every day now lasts a month). I’ve been sitting with this story and reflecting on whether I could answer yes to your question.
I was aware of racial discrimination and harassment, but my understanding of racism was too limited—in extent, in part because I wasn’t plugged in to social media, and in scope, because I didn’t understand racial oppression and injustice as part of a bigger system, as Ijeoma Oluo recommends in So You Want to Talk About Race. I’m curious if other readers would respond similarly or have different perspectives. This would be a really interesting question for discussion groups.
Andrew: We’ve got one right here—Commentariat, here’s one for you.
That discrimination is the key storyline of the first half. I wonder how it’s going to spill over in the conclusion? How do you think it might evolve?
Jenni: I could see things heat up a bit—especially if Emira decides to do something with the video that Kelley took at Market Depot. I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes up again.
Andrew: I think it must. The video has been in the back of my mind throughout the first half. Will it become a MacGuffin? Maybe? But based on the first half, I think it has a real purpose. So far, this story is tight. Everything is locking together so well. It’s all so well told, where practically everything feels like it has a purpose, and I don’t think something like that video—the transfer of which was so carefully detailed—could just be tossed aside.
Jenni: Right? I don’t think Reid would spend that much time on the email transfer only to throw it away. Kelley wanted Emira to share her experience and the video—or at least keep it in case she changed her mind at some point. Their relationship is new—they’re in that blissed-out, fun, and flirty phase—and they are really good to each other. If something happens with that video, things could get really intense, really fast. Is their relationship strong enough to weather that?
Alix Chamberlain is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night, walking the aisles of their local high-end supermarket. The store’s security guard, seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, accuses Emira of kidnapping the child. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make things right. But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. 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.
Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.
Andrew: You mention you’re into details. This book is packed with so many, and they have so many facets—and it’s such a vivid story as a result. Those details make this book feel truly inhabited. For example, there’s how Kelley says words three times (“hey hey hey,” “listen listen listen”), or the ways of describing how Emira is out of step with technology, such as when Zara shows her how to use Instagram.
Jenni: They really do. At first I wondered why Briar would want to spend time at Market Depot, but Reid explains with just a couple of key details: She likes to smell the tea and look at the nuts. Of course she does. Kids are quirky in unique ways, and Briar feels familiar after just a couple chapters. The details in her phrases and mannerisms were spot on and delightful (“Where is that squirrel’s mama?”).
Andrew: The way Briar is written is just perfect. This kid is written like a kid. Briar’s words are tender and random. Last summer, when we read Lost Children Archive, the way the 10-year-old son was written—where his words seemed too advanced—was a sticking point for some readers. But here, yes, three-year-old Briar sounds just about right to me. And speaking of last summer’s reading, outside of Trust Exercise, I can’t think of many halfway points in Camp books quite like this one. What a cliffhanger! What do you want to find out in the second half?
Jenni: You’re not kidding! I’m really curious about Emira’s relationships with Alix and Kelley. Does she stay in both? How?!
Andrew: I hope she doesn’t. So far, Emira has been a character who hasn’t been making choices. Her evolution to someone who does choose—and I’m hoping she will—would come down to Alix versus Kelley versus maybe herself?
Jenni: Reid stresses the importance of Emira finding a purposeful career path. Everyone in her family has a trained skill or practices a craft. Emira feels pressured to find her calling, her identity even. So who or what will Emira choose? Will it be her choice to make?
Andrew: I have to go back to how efficient and precise the first half has been, and think that the second half is going to do all these things. And as you put it, whether the choice is Emira’s or not—which I think could have a lot to say about the agency of Black people in America in the present day—will determine how I end up feeling about the book. I don’t know what a “happy” ending looks like for these characters, nor do I think that’s what I’m looking for. I do have the sense anything could happen from here on out, but at this point I trust this story and author to give an ending that’s going to feel right, whether or not that feeling is good.
Jenni: At this point, the second half will almost certainly be a wild ride. Reid has to resolve Alix and Kelley, Emira and Kelley, Alix and her family, and Emira and her career. Whew! Of all of those stories, I’m most curious about Emira and her career and how that affects Alix and her family -- primarily Briar. I so want a happy ending for both of them.
Andrew: We’ve been focusing on Emira so far, but our other big character here is, of course, Alix. What’s your take on her?
Jenni: Alix is complicated. She’s struggling to have it all—and as a working parent, I understand the push and pull—but she’s not honest about it (or other things) and comes off as cagey. Her daily routines and relationships feel staged.
Still, I wonder if Reid wants us to pull for Alix on some level. We glimpse moments of her as a loving mother and kind friend. Maybe we’re catching her at her lowest. Maybe she’s about to confront some personal truths. Maybe we’ll get to see a more authentic side of Alix in the second half. (Full disclaimer: I’m an optimist.)
But she doesn’t really trust Emira (phone snooping, yikes), and that’s a big issue.
Andrew: The phone snooping felt like a major plot point. We don’t have a lot of pages left with these characters, and even though I keep thinking how efficient this book is, I doubt Alix can come back from that level of transgression. I’d agree there’s an aspect of trust there, but what about respect?
Jenni: It’s totally lacking. Alix doesn’t respect Emira—or others close to her, for that matter (her parents, her daughter, her agent, her husband’s coworker). She wants to be seen as a person who has it all together. She wants to be respected and admired. She clearly values Emira’s opinion. So why the disconnect? Why not build a real relationship with Emira by giving her truth, trust, and respect? I keep thinking about our North Carolina state motto: esse quam videri. To be, rather than to seem. By snooping on Emira’s phone, is Alix showing us who she really is?
Andrew: I think it’s up to the second half to tell us exactly that. Who is Alix?
Thanks for joining us, Jenni! And now it’s over to the Commentariat to tell us what you thought about the first half of Such a Fun Age.
The Camp ToB 2020 Calendar
- June 3: The City We Became through page 214 (finish chapter 7)
- June 10: The City We Became to the end
- June 17: Sharks in the Time of Saviors through page 191 (finish part 2)
- June 24: Sharks in the Time of Saviors to the end
- July 1: VACATION
- July 8: The Night Watchman through page 227
- July 15: The Night Watchman to the end
- July 22: Such a Fun Age through part two
- July 29: Such a Fun Age to the end
- Aug. 5: Writers & Lovers through page 165
- Aug. 12: Writers & Lovers to the end
- Aug. 19: Weather through page 99
- Aug. 26: Weather to the end
- Sept. 2: Announce summer champion