Accidental Paperback – May 9 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Heather O'Neill plays Amber, a mysterious stranger who wangles her way into the lives of a vacationing English family spending the summer in a remote cottage. O'Neill reads with studious detachment and a persistent air of mischief, as if the entire story is a particularly juicy practical joke. Given Amber's predilection for wreaking havoc in her new adopted family's comfortably misguided lives, the emotion is supremely apropos. O'Neill is joined by a cast of performers, including Ruth Moore as the perpetually harried, perpetually preoccupied Eve, who spends all her time dreaming of the characters of the latest historical novel she's writing, and Stina Nielsen as Astrid, a 12-year-old with a frightening imagination and a propensity for recording the world on her video camera. The bulk of the book, though, is read by O'Neill, who provides a suitably nuanced reading, at times placid, at times flashing an air of free-floating menace. It is her work, above all, that brings Smith's novel to fully fleshed existence.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Astonishing. . . . Vivid and affecting. . . . Wonderfully supple, jazzy." -"The New York Times" "Persistently sparkling pages...of startling and clarifying emotional power. . . . It casts a spell." --"The Atlantic Monthly" "Completely captivating. . . . Thoroughly charming and melodic. . . .Devilishly lovely." --"The Boston Globe" "Beautifully executed. . . . A few pages [in] and you begin to remember how much fun it is to put yourself in the hands of a skilled, majestically confident writer. . . . Delightful." --"The New York Observer" "Brims with wit, humor, and energy." --"The Christian Science Monitor"See all Product Description
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In "The Accidental," it's not hard to figure out who author Ali Smith wants to be (or is). She's Amber, a sort of stochastic herbal essence, an earth-flavored, barefoot, dandelion wine of a woman who flounces in a figurative free-fall into the core of the book, twirls about with mad abandon and reckless sexiness, and disappears with just as much speed and consequence. She puts dirty thighs on Heisneberg's uncertainty principle and drops the drawers of chaos theory, manhandling the nuts and bolts inside.
Okay, I'm sorry, I'll be less poetic, even I think Smith herself would appreciate such an out-of-the-lines description. Smith's writing is equally unfettered, and for people who like the idea of meandering through prose the way you might meander through a lovely (and creepy) forest, "The Accidental" is something to cuddle up to. The whole novel reads like one long word game, and even if that means the seriousness of its import is sometimes smeared aside, it also means that for people who love the English language, well, there's plenty here to enjoy.
But that import. Let me not forget the import.
The story is about the family Smarts. Eve is a struggling writer, Michael is an oversexed professor, Magnus is a tortured teen with a secret, and Astrid is a identity-challenged female (one of those thirteen-year-old daughters that cannot accurately be called either girl, woman, or even young lady). Their problems aren't particularly astounding or new, and in many cases, it's hard to sympathize with them, since their troubles are self-brewed and administered (or, in the case of Astrid, normal enough to be boring).
Amber doesn't sympathize with them either. She appears one day at their summer cottage and their lives begin to change. She manipulates and motivates them in the same way any good author drives and directs her characters. The only difference here is that the characters are aware of the manipulation. Step aside, Priandello. Smith's gonna show you a thing or two.
It works in fits and starts (much in the same way that the metaphorical character names are simultaneously profound and heavy-handed), depending on who you sympathize with. I found myself most closely drawn to the adolescent Astrid, but only because her pre-teen angsts were so accurately set up and then so cleanly knocked down. Magnus's shackles of misery and his subsequent liberation I found clever but overdrawn. Eve's self-doubts and dramatics were powerfully done, but ultimately watered down. And Michael, well, the man may well have not existed in the book. As an English professor, some of his sections manage to have the most interesting writing and yet still say the least out of anyone's. Perhaps that's the point.
The book shows us the same things in four different ways, and it's entertaining in the way of jugglers and Rubik's Cubes. It's ultimately the point of the novel that gets in the way, its drive to be something serious. Eve's section ends with a sort-of back-loop to what started the novel, and it's far too cute for the book's own good. She tries to learn and emulate Amber, the novel's catalyst, and although Smith suggests it leads to redemption, I have my doubts.
Because, although Amber is certainly an intriguing character, she is ultimately a marionette with about four strings too many. The book is occasionally punctuated with brief Amber vignettes; related primarily to movies, they are supposed to give us a glimpse into Amber's genesis and upbringing in a world of celluloid and Act 3 miracles, to show us where her free-spirited anarchy found its first birth, and to explain -- in some small measure -- why (or how) this strange woman alters the lives along her seemingly uncharted path. It's Smith's way of bear-hugging the character, of petting her fondly by the fire of her soul.
It's a little patronizing, but it's also understandable. Amber is any author's dream -- something mysterious and sexy, a controlled explosion. Smith wants to use her to teach us something, and even if I didn't feel particularly educated after her exposure (can you guess if the Smarts get smarter?), I did enjoy myself. That part probably wasn't an accident.
At first look, the characters seem flat, almost stock characters, floating around, too self-centered to notice each other. Astrid's prepubescent musings are whimsical but hardly philosophical; Magnus's depressive, obsessive repetitions are tiresome. Enter Amber. Almost immediately, she saves Magnus from bathroom suicide, becomes the singular obsession of Michael, and gains the trust of Astrid. Amber is the center of conflict in the novel, and the catalyst for the change of each of the family members. While she drives the conflict, however, it would be difficult to say that she is the book's main character--each of the characters brings their own unraveling story to the book, and amazingly, Smith does justice to each of them. Michael, the cliché of the philandering professor, even seems to become self-aware--losing his egoism in the realization that his life is a stereotype. In the only break from stream-of-consciousness style writing in the text, this realization is related in sonnet, free verse, aabb and abab poetry form in the words of Michael.
Because the narration is almost exclusively the stream-of-consciousness presentation of the thoughts of each individual character, the narration does little for exposition beyond what is apparent to the characters. When the characters return home from their vacation at the end of the novel, their house has been stripped entirely empty of everything except the answering machine. It is never discovered what actually transpired to cause this, but Eve suspects that it is Amber's doing. This and other intentional ambiguities add to the mystery of the novel. As epiphanies are reached and characters change their perspectives, the reader must choose which perspective to take on the turn of events, based on the different realities of each of the characters.
One of my favorite elements of the text is the relation of current events to the lives of the characters. At one point, toward the end of the book, Eve is reflecting on some disturbing images recently released from Abu Gharib prison in Baghdad. The picture is a familiar one to the minds of most contemporary Americans, and the description of her reflection on the pictures is probably similar to a fairly recent experience many readers have had. It remains to be told whether this will simply make the book seem outdated in later years, but having snippets of what is still a current situation throughout the text creates a solid sense of a modern setting.
Conventions of devices and structure exist to promote unity and harmony in a text. The Accidental lacks the conventions of dialogue, capitalization, sentence structure, character structure (antagonist vs. protagonist), exposition, punctuation, and use of a single narrator. All these things aside, however, the book still exists as a unified text. The ending of the book is (without being a spoiler) very satisfactory, the text seems harmonized and even one further--believable. There is very little extraneous material, sans one piece: the first person musings of Amber. Amber seems to ramble about little connected with the action of the novel, and her first person narration is completely false. Amber claims to be everything she isn't, and gives absolutely no insight into her character. This is not to say that the book would be any better if the reader knew what Amber was thinking; in fact, it would definitely detract from the intended ambiguity and mystery of the text. However, her parts were rambling, nonsensical, and the author might have done us one better by simply leaving them out. Fortunately, Amber's input is short and the development of the other characters makes up for her extraneous babble.
The unconventional style of Smith's novel is quite successful in telling the story of a pivotal year in the life of the Smart family. The modern structure creates ease of understanding of the characters and their surroundings, and allows the author, in a relatively short text, to relate not one, but four complete stories.
After I finished the first read, I was disappointed. Then I was inspired to start over, and realized that the book is the equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle whose assembled picture you don't know; with thousands of pieces, some so small that they're easy to miss; and capable of being assembled into not just one but multiple pictures. If nothing else, attempting to assemble this jigsaw puzzle is a fascinating exercise, and my assembly still has annoyingly large holes.
Amber (the protagonist), and Eve (at the end of the book), are accidentally misidentified by others. "Accidentally" means that neither Amber nor Eve at first encounter intends to deceive those others, and their deception from that point forward is only by omitting such statements as, "You think I am Ms. X, but I am not Ms. X". Then it gets interesting: They decide to exploit their accidental mistaken identify in order to say what they really think and do what they really want to do. It made me think, what might I do if I had the same opportunity?
The author creates perhaps too many possibilities for interpreting this book, starting with the book's name: The Accidental . . . what? Tourist? Misidentification? Opportunity? Revelation/Enlightenment? Guest/Visitor?
At book club, solid cases were made both for and against the following assertions:
A Amber is a real person vs. she is not.
B. The Smarts benefit from Amber vs they are harmed.