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There But For The Hardcover – Jun 28 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (June 28 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0241143403
  • ISBN-13: 978-0241143407
  • Product Dimensions: 14.4 x 3.4 x 22.2 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 522 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #402,056 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


She's a genius, genuinely modern in the heroic, glorious sense -- Alain de Botton One of the most inventive writers we have. She jumps from high places and lands on her feet -- Jackie Kay Smith is a brilliant storyteller Time Out Hurrah for Ali Smith! The Times Quirky, intricately put together New York Times Exceedingly clever and subtly wrenching ... this novel is a marvel Washington Post Exhilarating Marie Claire A warm, playful, dazzlingly written modern fable Irish Independent A playful yet erudite celebration of words... Smith's prose is not just supple, it's acrobatic Daily Telegraph A tour de force -- Lionel Shriver Financial Times Playful, humorous, serious, profoundly clever and profoundly affecting Guardian

About the Author

Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962 and lives in Cambridge. She is the author of Free Love, Like, Hotel World, Other Stories and Other Stories, The Whole Story and Other Stories, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy and The First Person and Other Stories.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Reader Writer Runner TOP 50 REVIEWER on Sept. 30 2011
Format: Hardcover
What would you do if, in the middle of a dinner party, one of your guests rose from the table, went upstairs and locked himself in your spare bedroom? Ali Smith presents such a scenario in her latest novel: in spite of coaxing from bewildered hosts and confused guests, Miles Garth refuses to leave Gen and Eric Lee's guest room and communicates only through notes he delivers under the door.

As a media frenzy ensues, a cast of characters from "Milo's" past emerges to shape the author's four chapters. Forty-something Anna Hardie met Miles in 1980 on a European Grand Tour; gay sexagenarian Mark Palmer, whose late mother speaks to him in verse, tried to pick Miles up at a Shakespeare festival; elderly dementia sufferer May Young benefited from Miles' help with grieving for her late daughter; and precocious ten-year-old Brooke finally breaks through to Miles with her wit and cleverness.

"There But For The" contains exquisite and heartbreaking scenes written in experimental, kinetic prose. Themes of time, isolation and identity provide a thought-provoking read and the non-linear story line engages the reader's intellect. However, Smith often overtaxes the narrative with exaggerated stream-of-consciousness, which distracts the reader from the plot's tension. Dialogue between characters tends toward the precious and inauthentic, filled with puns and double entendres. Brooke, especially, with her references to classic literature and obscure erotica, comes across as a literary tool as opposed to a genuine personality.
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Format: Paperback
"There but for the" starts with the premise of a dinner party guest who gets up in the middle of the meal and quietly goes upstairs and locks himself into the hosts' spare room -- for months. A surprisingly warm-hearted story about how difficult it is to connect, to recognize how deeply we are connected, and the transformative magic that happens when we do.

"Imagine if all the civilizations in the past had not known to have the imagination to look up at the sun and the moon and the stars and work out that things were connected, that those things right in front of their eyes could be connected to time and to what times is and how it works." -p. 355

Smith does a marvelous job of showing the countless, sparkling, half-hidden, sometimes painful filaments that connect seemingly disparate people. Though the hosts of the dinner party had never met their new housemate before ("A stranger is living in our house against our will"), it becomes clear that there are profound, unconscious ties between these people. The idea of a stranger living in one's house "against one's will" is incredibly evocative. What Smith suggests to me is that below the surface of our lives there is an open invitation to the unknown and a recognition of the ways in which the deepest parts of ourselves are often strange to us -- and that we spend our lives alternating between running away and trying to connect, to come close, to welcome what is most deeply buried, often resented, largely feared. But when we accept and open up to this stranger inside us, the most incredible gifts are inevitably unleashed.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 83 reviews
35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant. Absolutely Brilliant Nov. 22 2011
By Cariola - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
'There but for the' isn't an easy book for me to write about, because it is one of those rare books that one doesn't just read but actually experiences, participates in. It's not a book to be breezed through for the plot. You have to work at it, often backing up and rereading to make connections between events, characters, and words. But often that work surprises you by becoming infinite play, even as it leaves you with some startling observations about human nature, language, memory, and the world we live in.

Taken separately, each of the words in the title seem nondescript; together, they seem empty without the expected conclusion--without, in other words, God or grace. And maybe that's exactly what Smith intended: to make us ponder the place ("there") of God and the location of grace in a society that is technologically advanced "but" individually isolating. (Think about the person with 5000 'friends' on Facebook.) It may be hard to find, but, ultimately, Smith concludes, grace is still there, within and between us.

The novel consists of four chapters, one for each word in the title, each focused on a different narrator. As many of the reviews below note, the basic premise is that a man attends a dinner party, walks upstairs between the main course and dessert, and locks himself into the spare bedroom, refusing to come out. But the real stories are inside the heads of the narrators. Anna ("There"), a fortyish single woman bored with her job, is surprised to learn that her email address has been found in the interloper's (Miles's) cell phone, pushing forth long-forgotten memories of the continental tour she won as a teenager. Mark ("but"), a gay man in his 60s still grieving the loss of his partner more than 20 years earlier, is haunted by the lyric-singing, rhyme-spouting, often-obscene ghost of his mother, a brilliant artist who committed suicide. May ("for") is a terminally ill 80-year old falling into dementia and memories of the daughter she lost, yet still sharp enough to observe and regret the changing world around her. Finally, the delightful Brooke Bayoude ("the"), who is either the CLEVEREST or the CLEVERIST, a girl who delights in the sounds and multiple meanings of words and wants to pin down the 'facts' of history, even as she comes to realize that facts, too, are mutable. Along the way, Smith deftly and subtly weaves in unexpected connections among these characters and even the novel's secondary characters.

I'm not one who generally likes fiction that philosophizes. Here, it takes you unawares, most often playfully, but sometimes melancholically. It's a rare book that can make you think, think about your own life, while you're being so well entertained. And as a wordsmith/word lover, I found Smith's puns, rhymes, jokes, allusions, double entendres, etc. thoroughly delightful. (Having vivid memories of riding in the backseat of the family car at about age nine, pondering the sounds of the word "jello," drawing it out in the voice in my head, I could really relate to Brooke.)

I haven't always been a fan of Smith's type of literary experimentation; in fact, the last of her works that I read, a short story collection, was off-putting simpy because it seemed to exist only for the purpose of experimentation, and while I liked 'The Accidental'--another novel using multiple narrators--, I was somewhat disappointed in the ending. But for me, 'There but for the' is about as close to perfection as it gets. Put aside your usual expections, open your mind, and jump in. You won't regret it.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
An uneven exploration of personal connections Oct. 19 2011
By Andrew W. Johns - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I'm not entirely sure what I expected from this book, but it certainly wasn't this. While the book is built around the framework created by odd behavior of Miles Garth, who locks himself in a spare room in a house where he is a dinner guest, this book isn't a single coherent story. Instead, it is really a set of reflections by people who are impacted by this action, even if it isn't immediately obvious how or why. While we never really get any deep insight into Miles or his action, we do learn a great deal about the people he has interacted with. But none of these people know Miles well, and while his actions cause them to reflect on their own lives, they do not have any answers to the questions raised by Miles's decision to barricade himself in a stranger's home.

Written in an almost "stream of consciousness" style, the pacing of this book was a bit uneven, with parts very readable and other portions dragging. There was a point in the middle where I wasn't sure if it was worth the effort to finish. The pacing did improve, though, and the final section proved to be the most entertaining, so it seems to have been worth plowing through.

This book is probably not for everyone, and I suspect that the response to this will be fairly polarized, with people either loving or really hating it. If you enjoy books that are full of character self-reflection, and don't mind the lack of any real plot, then this might appeal to you. However, if you need action in you books, then give this a pass.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
...grace of... Sept. 13 2011
By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Scottish writer Ali Smith is a veteran writer of the unwanted house guest. In The Accidental, an uninvited woman shows up at a residence and turns the family upside down. In her latest novel, Miles Garth, a dinner party guest in Greenwich, leaves the dinner table, exits upstairs, locks himself in the spare room, and declines to leave. Miles is the nominal central figure of the novel, yet it is his "absent presence" and other paradoxes of human nature that are pivotal. His silence is the roar that emanates alienation.

The main characters of the four chapters, entitled There, But, For and The respectively, experience a pressing solitude (one character describes the Internet as "a whole new way of feeling lonely"). Three have met Miles at some point in their lives, but none of them know him intimately. Anna, who is also known as Anna K (as in Kafka's The Trial; or anarchy; or "Anna Key in the UK," a Sex Pistols cover), knew Miles briefly as a teenager when they both won an academic competition to travel to various European cities. She remembers him as confident, spirited, and arch.

Anna's former job at the Center for Temporary Permanence is reminiscent of Jonas's in How to Read the Air. As senior liaison, she condensed the trauma stories of individuals so that their narratives fit onto one page of a document. "You have exactly the right kind of absent presence," her former boss tells her, referring to her forced remoteness from her clients. Temporary permanence and absent presence amplify the tragic isolation of contemporary society. Now in her 40's, Anna is experiencing an existential crisis of identity and alienation.

Mark met Miles at a local theater production of A WINTER'S TALE, and initially tried to pick him up. They began a friendship over their opposite responses to a cell phone going off during the play, and Mark subsequently brought Miles to the dinner party hosted by Gen and Eric (Gen-Eric, a pun). Mark has been plagued for decades by his dead mother's voice whispering into his ear in rhyming couplets. Her absence is a constant presence in his life.

A dying, elderly woman's connection to Miles is not apparent at first. She is in the hospital, gradually losing her grip on reality, and determined not to be sent to a nursing home. Her status as sick and old illustrates the tacit ageism of society, as others regard her as invisible while they manage and condescend to her.

The true central character is Brooke, the less than decade-old daughter of one of the dinner party couples. Brooke is too remarkably precious and inauthentic-- a provocative child prodigy who thinks, talks, and usually writes like a post-grad student. She is familiar with the text and nuances of HAMLET, as well as other references to lofty literature and obscure esoterica. Can't children just be children in literature anymore? It borders on gimmicky.

Brook's dialogue and interior monologues, however, are weighted with the gravitas of the novel. She is loaded with punny ideas, time-slips, and her attraction to the Greenwich foot tunnel invokes the infinite coil of memory and history. Her behavior toward others is unimpeachable, yet drenched in irony. Unfortunately, Brooke feels less like a real character than a bridge between the text and Smith's ideas.

Smith is a high-wire artist of the nonlinear storyline, and a conjurer of experimental, hyperkinetic prose. The elastic and slanted wordplay revolve around isolation and identity. But Smith overtaxes the narrative with voguish stream-of-consciousness during the latter part of the story. It exaggerates and escalates to the point of burlesque, and removes the reader from the narrative tension into the staginess of its performance. The manic flow of prose floods the reader with its self-awareness.

Some of its parts are exquisite and heartbreaking, but the sum of its parts is less than some of its parts. The combination of typecast characters and pc heavy-handedness is stultifying. The middle-class white people are boorish philistines. The ethnic characters and those with alternate lifestyles, as well as the precocious Brooke, are paragons of temperance and sensitivity.

The themes prevail, but the lush linguistics and hurricane of words crushes the characters underfoot, and the clichéd stereotypes are laden with the very middle-class pieties that Smith aims to send up, allocated to types. Moreover, the visceral opening of the novel diminishes in her cerebral profusion of the last fourth of the book and threatens to vanish with Miles behind the closed door.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Asking the Big Questions Dec 8 2011
By Sam Sattler - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Having read two of Ali Smith's earlier novels, I knew not to expect anything resembling a conventional novel when I began There But For The. Smith is one of those novelists who seem to be just as concerned about style and experimentation with form as they are about plot and characters - and There But For The follows that pattern. For instance, despite that the plot is largely moved along via one-on-one conversation, not a single quotation mark will be found in this novel. Smith, too, seems to favor long, rambling, multi-page paragraphs that are as densely packed with content as their overwhelming appearance to the eye leads the reader to expect them to be. Personally, I find paragraphs of extreme length to be tiring, almost mind-numbing, after wading through anything more than a handful of pages of them. A lack of quotation marks, on the other hand, does not bother me when the author, as Smith does here, still makes it perfectly clear which character is speaking.

Many of Smith's regular readers love her for her style. I have to say that I tolerate her style, but love her work, instead, for its memorable characters and unusual plotlines, both of which are strong points of this new novel. The story begins at a London dinner table, over which a group of near strangers are becoming better acquainted, when Miles Garth suddenly leaves the table. Only when Miles does not return within a reasonable amount of time, is it determined that he has locked himself inside one of the home's upstairs rooms - a room he will remain inside for hours, that turn into days, and then into weeks. Desperate to rid her home of her newly acquired squatter, the dinner host first searches Miles's address book for someone who can talk him out of the room.

That is how she finds Anna, the first of four narrators through whom we learn more about Miles Garth and how he ended up where he is. Anna, a fortyish woman who met Miles on a high school trip to France, at first barely remembers him but surprises herself by some of the things that come back to her. Mark, who is responsible for having invited Miles to the dinner party, is a gay man in his sixties. May, in her eighties, remembers the kindness shown her by Miles. And, finally, there is Brooke, a precocious little ten-year-old girl who only met Miles at the party but now feels somehow connected to him.

There But For The explores some basic questions, even to the meaning of life, but its main theme involves how differently those who pass through our lives might remember the experience than we remember it - and how little we really understand about ourselves and those with whom, over a lifetime, we share time. The novel's relatively simple plot is deceptive; there is a lot going on here.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
It's all in the details Oct. 10 2011
By mrliteral - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product
That old line about "not being able to see the forest for the trees" may be a bit of a cliche, but it still is true. Sometimes we focus so much on the details, we lose the big picture, a thought that came to mind as I read Ali Smith's There But For The.

The rather thin plot is hazily focused on Miles Garth, a guest at a dinner party in Greenwich, England. In the middle of the party, Miles goes upstairs and locks himself in a spare bedroom. He will be there for quite a while, and his reason for being there is inexplicable. The problem is that Miles is a stranger to not only everyone at the party, but has seemingly little connection to anyone. Several people who are tangentially associated with Miles will get involved in this minor drama. Each section (named after one of the words in the title) follows one of these characters, and much of what we learn of them has little to do with Miles.

It's in the second section ("But") that we observe the dinner party itself, a series of conversations that turn on a dime, as if everyone involved has Attention Deficit Disorder. In fact, that seems to be a common theme in the book, as topics of discussion keep changing.

It's also the book's big problem. Read in small pieces, it is often brilliant, filled with humor and wordplay. Unfortunately, it doesn't really fit into a cohesive whole. Just as none of these characters seem capable of concentration, I found it hard to keep my attention while reading. I realize that this is supposed to be more of a "literary" work, but it doesn't make the book any better. Fine in the details, unfocused in its bigger tale, this rates three stars: it is all trees, little forest.

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