In Kiley Reid’s 2019 novel Such a Fun Age, a black babysitter is accused by a supermarket security guard of kidnapping her white employer’s toddler. It’s an ugly incident that sets the stage for a shrewd exploration of race in modern America, and the novel went down a storm with black and white readers alike. Reese Witherspoon raved about it, while Reid was talked up on both sides of the Atlantic as a novelist to watch.
Her second novel, Come and Get It, returns to similar themes, but less incisively. The perspective of the book flicks between three or four characters, though it has a clear heroine in Millie Cousins, a mixed-race student whom we meet returning to the University of Arkansas for her final year, after taking time off to care for her sick mother. To pay her way – and save up to buy a house, which is her dearest wish – she takes on a job as a resident assistant, or “RA”, in a university housing block. For a meagre wage, she must mind the undergraduates who live on her floor: conduct health-and-safety checks, smooth over their squabbles and make sure they’re not getting bullied.
Millie’s room is next to a three-person dorm, in which a scratchy dynamic is established within hours of its residents moving in. One girl, Kennedy, turns up from Iowa with an enormous amount of stuff, much of it on the tacky side: a chandelier, artwork bearing inane slogans, a unicorn for hanging jewellery. Her new roommates are annoyed by the volume of junk she’s bringing into their lives; but Millie sorts out this micro-drama with warmth and tact: she’s a nice person.
A whole book about Millie’s scrapes as an RA, even in Reid’s fluid and easygoing prose, would probably not have been scintillating, so it’s a relief when she becomes entangled with a visiting professor at the university. Agatha is white, worldly and successful, and arrives on campus licking her wounds after a break-up with a female dancer. Deciding that the girls in the housing block would make for good material for a series of gossipy articles about college students, she persuades Millie to let her camp out in her bedroom, eavesdropping on the dorm next door. And, as Agatha takes notes, Millie falls under her spell.
There’s a lot to recommend in Come and Get It. Reid has an excellent ear for speech: you get the impression that she, like Agatha, has put in the hours listening to 20-year-olds chatter, bitch and plot. She’s also a sharp observer of the way in which money confers power or withholds it, and how this can intersect with race. The novel can be read as a queasy post-MeToo romance, with Millie its protagonist and Agatha its villain, but it’s also a story about a millennial’s attempt to get on the housing ladder. The movement of cash between characters – a student gives Millie a tip; Agatha pays a bribe – provides the turning points. The decision to foreground money is unusual, yet Reid pulls it off.
But there are problems, too, the biggest of which is that the reader is asked to spend a lot of time with a bunch of uninteresting college students. Millie, it’s true, isn’t bad company, but her mousy naïveté soon begins to grate; and though Kennedy, the “Live Laugh Love” Iowan, is well-written and surprising, the snakey girls around her are less so.
The story also takes too long to get going, and there are tics in the prose that take you out of the flow. Virtually every character, for instance, says “Ohmygod” rather than “Oh my God”; they also sometimes say “thankyousomuch”. When a Southern undergraduate talks, her strung-out vowels are laboriously spelled out: “Ah’m Casey, ah’m a senior.” An editor at Bloomsbury should have stopped this from happening. Readers who liked Such a Fun Age will no doubt find it a pleasure to be back in Reid’s world; those who haven’t yet encountered her work might do better to start with her debut.
Come and Get It is published by Bloomsbury at £16.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books