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BOOK REVIEW

Kiley Reid invites readers to ‘Come and Get It’ but leaves them wanting more

The author’s second novel tries to skewer the precarities and politics of campus life but the satire proves dull

Kiley Reid, author of "Come & Get It."David Goddard/Putnam

Like Sally Rooney, Kiley Reid is a millennial author celebrated for understanding the contours, cadence, and personal politics of contemporary life. “Such a Fun Age,” her Booker Prize long-listed 2019 satire exploring race, class, and life in the age of social media through the fraught relationship between a privileged white mom and her Black nanny, brimmed with energy and scalpel sharp wit.

As a chronicler of college life, Reid is on shakier ground. The setup, though, is immaculate.

Outsiders often make great point of view characters. This is especially true when the interloper is a professional observer, as she is in “Come and Get It.” The central catalyst is author Agatha Paul, a middle-aged, Chicago- based intellectual with a failed marriage who comes to University of Arkansas in Fayetteville to spend a year as a visiting professor of nonfiction writing, media, and cultural studies. A specialist in documenting modern rituals and traditions, Agatha plans to do some teaching and tap her students — the young inhabitants of Belgrade House — as subjects to produce her third book, on weddings. Agatha’s first book centered “funerals and grief. The second was about birthday celebrations.”

Unglamourous and less popular than private housing options, Belgrade House, populated by scholarship students, transfers, and other mildly disgruntled residents, is a bit of a hardship post. Agatha peers into the lives and mores of Gen Z women, using this unlucky home base as her goldfish bowl. Rather than bringing out the best, Belgrade is the kind of place where petty resentments thrive; after all, they admit, “we don’t live here on purpose.” After a single group interview, though, Agatha starts to realize the story she’s reaching for might not be about weddings at all. The way these young women talk about money and “class” is far more interesting. Comments that Belgrade is “ghetto,” “the poor-people-dorm,” and “We live in the projects” pique Agatha’s interest. And if they’re going to talk about money, she might as well make a quick buck by selling thinly veiled versions of the women’s experiences to Teen Vogue as well.

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Given this arch school scenario, the book’s satire is surprisingly tepid. Reid gets the economics and anxieties of university life right; the trouble is that on the heels of a raft of memorable academic set novels and media — among them Rooney’s “Normal People” and Brandon Taylor’s “Real Life” — accuracy is not enough. The subject begs for precision and depth. The intersection of class and race, and the fact that white college girls in a theoretically progressive generation weaponize pejorative, racist terms like “ghetto” are hardly revelations. Fittingly, one of the novel’s best lines, rooted in Agatha’s thought process, reeks of this irony: “she knew, in some capacity, she’d miss Tyler, Jenna, and Casey. The feeling of being invested in their lives, it was thrilling and terrible.” Despite this feeling of closeness, Agatha, having gained access to these girls, is brazenly content to skim the surface of their lives and embellish the details as needed; the format she’s catering to, she reasons, practically demands it.

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Despite the campus ensemble trappings, Reid’s most specific and well honed observations apply to just two characters and the relationship between them. White, 37-year-old Agatha comes to Arkansas after the breakup of her long-term relationship with Robin, a professional dancer who’s 28 and Black. Fascinated by and critical of those who are younger and different from her, Agatha is more comfortable with her analysis than with interpersonal interaction.

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At the university, Agatha gets tangled up with 24-year-old Resident Advisor Millie, who is all earnestness and promise. An African American hospitality student returning to school for her senior year after taking time off to care for her mother, Millie is committed to the comfort of those around her. Apart from saving money for her home, her focus is on her consuming and confusing crushes on both her boss, Resident Director Josh, and on Agatha.

Beyond Millie, the characters are mainly instruments of the plot. Two RAs, Colette and Ryland, are Millie’s closest friends, acerbic, but background players. The two-bedroom suite next to Millie’s room includes a pampered Peyton (African American, with overbearing parents); Tyler Hanna (a manipulative scholarship student with a parent in jail); and the awkward Kennedy Hawthorn, whose social anxiety might mask something darker.

In writing that is clever, repetitive, and glib, aggressions micro and macro abound, as when Casey, a white resident, casts Millie — daughter of two professionals — as “ghetto,” mimicking her with a stereotypical diction Millie never uses. And when Tyler, in a veiled ageist diss leavened with faux southern charm, tells Agatha: “you dress how I want to dress when I’m older.” Agatha’s take: “Perhaps she was wrong, but pressed for time, Agatha categorized the residents like this: Jenna: tall. Casey: southern. Tyler: mean.”

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That summary judgment plants a seed. Unfortunately, this scene is about as dramatic as it gets until we’re rounding the final corners to an improbably florid finish. One gets the sense that one character might substitute for another — as Agatha herself occasionally substitutes quotes from one woman for another’s in her writing. The specificity and heat all reside in the unequal relationship between the two women, Agatha and Millie, one white, the other Black, one privileged and older, one younger, striving, and uncertain. This is the fertile, familiar territory of “Such a Fun Age”; without digging deeper, the rest seems like camouflage.

Does this make Agatha and the relationships she’s drawn to the main target of the whole piece? Maybe. Probably. At one point there’s a hint: “There was something thrilling about the young women. The sensation they gave her was one of intrigue and revulsion, and it reminded her of Robin.” That’s a telling, provocative connection, comparing one’s life partner to these young (subordinate) strangers, but the novel’s satirical lens is blurred and flickering. Reid’s focus is trained on patterns and group identities — money, race, and class distinctions — and intergroup dynamics. But her observations are too slight for the wind-up — enough to fill the magazine profiles Agatha writes but not to carry a nearly 400-page novel with sluggish momentum. We need smart campus novels that bravely take on economic precarity and the vagaries of sex, race, and class, but I wanted more from this one. To read “Come and Get It” is to crave for something more to happen.

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COME AND GET IT

By Kiley Reid

Putnam, 400 pp., $29

Carole V. Bell is a Jamaican-born writer, critic, and media researcher.