The accidental

by Ali Smith

Paper Book, 2005





London ; New York : Hamish Hamilton, 2005.


Barefoot, thirty-something Amber shows up at the door of a Norfolk cottage that the Smarts are renting for the summer, insinuating herself into their family. Dazzled by her seeming exoticism, the Smarts begin to examine the accidents of their lives under the searing lens of Amber's perceptions. When the mother Eve finally banishes her from the cottage, Amber disappears from their sight, but not--as they find when they return home to London--from their profoundly altered lives. Fearlessly intelligent, disarmingly playful, "The accidental" is a Joycean tour-de-force of literary improvisation that explores the nature of truth, the role of chance, and the transformative power of storytelling.

Media reviews

Ms. Smith can do suicidal teenage angst and middle-aged ennui, a 12-year-old's sardonic innocence and an aging Lothario's randy daydreams with equal aplomb. And in riffing on the stream of consciousness form, pioneered by such high-brow litterateurs as Joyce and Woolf, she manages to make it as accessible and up to the minute (if vastly more entertaining) as talk radio or an Internet chat room.
1 more
The awkwardness of the novel's moralizing is all the more disconcerting given its fine, lustrous texture on the page. Smith is a wizard at observing and memorializing the ebb and flow of the everyday mind — Astrid musing that "hurtling sounds like a little hurt being, like earthling, like something aliens from another planet would land on earth and call human beings who have been a little bit hurt." The close-up is Smith's forte. Her long shots need a little work.

User reviews

LibraryThing member debnance
I read reviews, I listen to others talk about books, I seek out books that others rave about, and nevertheless, many books disappoint.The Accidental did not disappoint. And how did I run across it? Well, (forgive me this) it was quite accidental. As many good things are.The Accidental has everything I dream of finding in a good book. It's smarter than me (the most important quality I look for in a good book or a good friend). It has intriguing characters. It has a plot that both confirms and surprises. The writing is beautiful, lush, fun.It is a book that I can see myself reading again, talking about, thinking about. I know I'm gushing. But it is like trying to describe a new boyfriend to a friend at work, all the while worrying secretly that when the boyfriend and friend finally do meet, the friend will see nothing but the boyfriend's receding hairline and awkward social skills.I'm sure there must be a receding hairline somewhere in The Accidental, but right now I'm too overcome with its beauty and cleverness to notice.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Eve and Michael Smart, and their children Magnus and Astrid, rent a house in Norfolk for the summer, hoping to escape the stress of everyday London life. One day a young woman named Amber appears on their doorstep, and everyone is so caught up in their own cares, each assumes she is known to one of the others. Astrid thinks she's a friend of Eve's; Eve thinks she's one of Michael's university students, etc. Amber stays for dinner, and spends the night, albeit in her car. Time passes and before you know it, Amber is firmly entrenched in their lives. She's a dubious role model and mentor to 12-year-old Amber, the object of 17-year-old Magnus' passion, and the one woman Michael wants but can't manage to seduce. Amber also becomes privy to several deep family secrets, some shared with her directly and others obtained through her powers of reason.

It's all very strange, because she's not particularly likeable. You'd think one of the parents would kick her out, but every member of the family is so locked inside their own head that no one understands the effect she's having on them collectively. As Amber inserts herself into the family, she shares remarkably little about herself, and yet manages to get everyone else to let their guard down. Each family member has the chance to tell their version of the story, taking turns as narrator, which enables the reader to get just as deep into each person's psyche as Amber does. Ali Smith used very different writing styles and techniques for each character, underscoring the differences between family members. On the other hand, Amber's chapters are decidedly sparse, so as readers our understanding of her is just as limited as the family's.

I was initially intrigued by Smith's quirky writing, but eventually tired of it. The story seemed about equal parts positive and creepy. Only when the family returns to London does the full impact of Amber's visit become clear, and the whole thing struck me as quite creepy indeed. And while this book gave me some interesting thoughts to ponder, I was left wishing some of the family relationships and related themes were further developed.
… (more)
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
A family, fractured and potentially disintegrating, takes a holiday home in Norfolk for the summer. Eve is failing to work on her next fictionalized biography. Michael is successfully working on his next meaningless affair at the university. Magnus is dealing with his guilt over the provoked suicide of a girl in his school. Astrid is on the verge of puberty or madness, or both if they aren’t distinguishable. Four isolated and damaged individuals. And each of them will have their lives turned upside down by the arrival Amber. But is she an accidental visitor whose car has run into difficulty, or is she a deliberate intervention? Or is she something altogether extraordinary? Well, that last one is certain though just how far out of the ordinary remains unclear.

Ali Smith traces Amber’s impact on each of her main characters in turn. And since they each lead such oppressively interior lives, closed off from the light of understanding or shared concern, Amber can be substantially different for each of them. And for each of them, she is just what they need, more or less. She rescues Magnus from his morbid guilty self-concern which risks leading him down the same path as his former classmate. She expands Astrid’s view outward from the narrowing lens of her dv camera into a world of humour and joy. She disdains Michael’s advances but gives him the opportunity to revel in a bit of unrequited lust, for a change. And for Eve? She knocks her on her head and challenges her inauthentic existence.
Amber’s interactions go through three iterations: beginning, middle, and end. These twelve studies are bracketed by a possible origin story for Amber in a startling procreation exercise at the Alhambra Picture Palace. But what is the connection between the flickering images on the screen, the fictive reality of Eve’s own origins, and the transformative power of accident?

Fascinating to read, even if I’m not entirely certain that it succeeds as a whole. But certainly recommended.
… (more)
LibraryThing member mrstreme
Truth be told, I don’t know how to fairly review The Accidental by Ali Smith. It’s a story that follows the dysfunctional lives of the Smart family and the emergence of Amber, a young woman who crashes the Smart’s summer home one evening. Amber’s presence helps members of the family deal with their individual grief, though the reader never quite learned why Amber was there.

The four Smart family members take turns narrating a chapter. My favorite chapters were told by Astrid, a young girl who likes to videotape everything. With a director’s eye and a stream of consciousness that James Joyce would appreciate, Astrid’s perspective matched her age: big ideas, rambling thoughts and a curiosity about life. Also interesting was her brother’s narrative: Magnus was depressed about the suicide of a fellow classmate and felt at blame for the girl’s death. Smith’s strength is not character development – you never get a full picture of each character – but the snippets she showed of the kids were insightful and captivating.

Smith’s writing style takes a while to get used to. You’re dropped into the middle of each character’s thoughts, and you might need several chapters (as I did) to get into the writing style. Admittedly, it’s not my favorite way of storytelling, and I felt it put up barriers around the characters and their stories. Additionally, the ending was disappointing, and after trudging through this book, I was hoping for something a little more gratifying.

It’s hard to recommend The Accidental because it was a “meh” book for me. I encourage future readers to look at other reviews before deciding on this book. I think it’s a book you either like or don’t; I hate to say that I am in the latter group.
… (more)
LibraryThing member goose114
The Accidental is about a stranger that forces her way into the Smart family’s summer home and life. This stranger affects each of the four members of the Smart family differently. The stranger allows some to heal and move on with their lives, and to others reveals their own unhappiness. The story is told from the perspective of each of the four members of the Smart family and short snippets seemingly from the stranger’s point of view. The impact that the stranger has on each of the family members was very interesting and really made me think about how one person can affect another so differently from the next.

I enjoyed the different points of view, but at times it was difficult to understand the plotline through the characters’ thoughts. I found this book hard to put down at times, but I could not really tell you why. At times I became engulfed in a character’s thoughts, but at other times found it challenging to keep reading. I was disappointed in the ending and thought that the story needed some closure. This book overall was nothing special. It was entertaining, but it left me underwhelmed and slightly confused.
… (more)
LibraryThing member ursula
This book started off intriguingly enough, told in a very distinctive voice we soon learn belongs to Astrid, a 12-year-old on holiday with her family in a "substandard" vacation rental. She's precocious and quirky, but child narrators pretty much have to be. Then the focus bounces back and forth between Astrid, her mother (Eve), her brother (Magnus), and her stepfather (MIchael). This method of storytelling can be very effective to help the reader understand what 's going on from multiple points of view, or to give some insight into characters' motivations. However, Eve and Michael don't really have much to add. Eve is a writer with a block and not really much of a personality beyond that, while Michael is a philandering professor who seems to only think of sex (but not with any real enthusiasm).

The action (if you can call it that) happens when an unknown woman named Amber happens into their household and stays because both Eve and Michael think she must have something to do with the other one, but everyone is too polite to ask at first. By the time they realize it, Amber has ingratiated herself into the family and stays until they begin to feel that she's not charmingly blunt but instead relentlessly cruel. The interactions between Astrid and Amber were the most believable and affecting. Amber's pseudo-showdown with Eve would have been something if Eve had any more texture to her than damp cardboard. Some odd stylistic choices and segues distracted from the storytelling (Michael tells a whole chapter in verse - I skimmed it; another entire chapter is made up of a sort of stream-of-consciousness mashup of movie plots - I skipped it).

Summary: I enjoyed about half of it, was disinterested in about a quarter of it, and completely hated about a quarter of it.

One quote from the book that caught my eye: "There are things that can't be said because it is hard to have to know them. There are things you can't get away from after you know them."
… (more)
LibraryThing member bohemiangirl35
I'm not really sure what to think about The Accidental. The story was pretty uneven for me. Some parts were captivating and other parts were downright boring and I wanted to skip over them.

The story is told through each of the four members of the Smart family - mom Eve, dad Michael, older brother Magnus, younger sister Astrid. The best chapters were definitely the ones told by the kids. Magnus' teen angst and depression over thinking he caused the suicide of a classmate and Astrid's preteen randomness of thought were compelling and amusing, respectfully. The chapters told by the parents were so much middle aged rambling. The pieces of the story from Amber, the young woman who crashes the family's summer home, were odd.

Amber shows up at the summer house and just walks in when the door is opened to her saying her car is broken down just down the road. Michael assumes she is there for Eve because she acts like she belongs. Eve assumes Michael invited her when she meets her later. Neither confirms with the other, so Amber stays, hangs out with the kids separately, taking them on a series of secret adventures which the parents would have freaked over if they knew about them. The parents are uncomfortable with her but neither says anything until Eve throws her out. The novel is about how Amber affects each member of the family differently and the aftermath of her being in their lives for the summer.

Not sure if I recommend the book, but I can't not recommend it, either. I guess it's one of those things you have to read for yourself and decide.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Cariola
Let me make two confessions before I begin: 1) I'm partial to books with multiple narrators or points of view; 2) I generally don't care for adolescent narrators. So naturally, the structure of The Accidental immediately appealed to me, but I was also immediately put off by the first sizable chapter, narrated by 12-year old Astrid Smart. I stuck with it and ended up very happy that I did. Many reviewers have complained that Amber, a central character whose presence in the Smarts' vacation home, remains a cypher. But that's exactly what I believe Smith intended. The novel isn't about Amber, except as a catalyst for change within the family. When she arrives, Eve, Michael, Magnus, and Astrid are each miserable in his or her own way, and they are all miserable as a family. The changes Amber provokes seem to leave everyone happier--but are they? When I got to the end of the book, I felt totally confused. What had happened? Well, I don't want to give anything away, but I went back and reread the last 80 pages or so, and the effort was totally worth it. I loved this novel, its freshness and authenticity, and I'll be looking for more by Ali Smith.… (more)
LibraryThing member skylightbooks
Each member of the family is treading water existentially: the precocious preteen, the obsessive adolescent, the philandering scholar and the floundering writer. Enter Amber, the accidental, the catalyst that pushes them under or shocks them into action. Complex and accessible, full of panache and verve, Ali Smith is well worth reading. -Emily… (more)
LibraryThing member lazylinepainter
Teorema w/ a girl and w/o the metaphysics.
LibraryThing member jonbeckett
I really hated this book - it's almost like reading a classroom exercise in how to write an annoying and pointless story. I wondering if the critics actually read it.
LibraryThing member lizchris
Although highly recommended, I found this a frustrating read. Characters behave strangely with very little hint of their motivations, questions are left dangling.
The book is dreamy, disjointed and in parts, preposterous.
I know I'm in a minority on this one; I have read another Ali Smith "Hotel World" and felt the same way so perhaps it's just me.… (more)
LibraryThing member awomanonabike
A self-satisfied book about a middle class couple on holiday in East Anglia & being conned in a middle class way. I finished it (because I always do) but was not satisfied by having done so and should have abandoned it. Gave it to Oxfam.
LibraryThing member PatsyMurray
Brilliant! A book that expands your understanding of what it means to be human.
LibraryThing member EricKarl
Surprise and chance have a way of intrusively wedging a new perspective into people's lives. The four members of the Smart family seem in particular need of just such an unexpected element during their holiday in the Norfolk countryside. All of them are on the brink of a major crisis in their lives, but most of them are carefully avoiding the reality of their situations. At their idyllic getaway which the daughter Astrid views as an "unhygienic dump" they receive an unexpected visitor who brashly delivers a new point of view. From beginning, middle to end they are shaken into a new understanding of the world.

This is an intelligent, carefully structured novel that is both funny and illuminating. A chance trip to watch the movie Love Actually leads Magnus, the confused young son of the family to ruminate on Plato's ideas about Belief and Illusion. Ali Smith is able to incorporate myth and philosophy into her wry look at ordinary modern life in a way that produces an entirely fresh way of seeing. From the minute details of life to the war in Iraq playing in the background, the methods we use to understand things are exposed and questioned. Whether seeing reality through the filter of Astrid's camera lens or the mathematical equations of Magnus, the way we view the world is scrupulously examined. But the characters have a sense that truth is still hidden from them leading them to use new tools to examine it. Ali Smith bravely experiments with language and the form of the novel to re-view life. If her technique is viewed by some as placing literary panache over essential meaning then Smith seems to answer this through her character the novelist Eve who responds, "It's not a gimmick. Every question has an answer." Smith cleverly constructs different paths to bring us to new answers.
… (more)
LibraryThing member madhuri_agrawal
This was my first book by the author, and I liked reading it, though I think the book was very rudderless. It had four different narrators, each of them member of a forcefully tied, fragmented family who suddenly meet an unknown woman and she becomes somehow central to each of their lives. The annoying thing was that the woman remains a mystery throughout and it is unclear where she comes from and why. A different read, though, with a poetic ending.… (more)
LibraryThing member comradesara
This was the most important book I read in 2006.
LibraryThing member mhgatti
In the kitchen, "instant" is rarely better than "slow-cooked." What would you rather have - Folgers crystals or fresh brewed? Cut-and-bake cookie dough or dough made from scratch? Microwave or stove-top oatmeal?

Novels, on the other hand, can sometimes benefit from a little Hamburger Helper-like assistance. Especially those that deal with family dynamics. Why spend 200 pages setting up why mom - and dad, and son, and daughter - act the way they do? You can communicate the same information much more quickly by manufacturing a conflict and revealing character traits simply by showing how each family member reacts to the unexpected event. The trick is to make sure the conflict doesn't overtake the rest of the story.

In The Accidental, Ali Smith introduces a mysterious visitor, Amber, to quick-bake her character development. This vagabond easily enters the vacation home of the dysfunctional Smart family because each member has a mistaken idea of who she is. They all think she is someone else's guest.

Amber ends up being a different person to each of the Smarts. Her interactions with the skirt-chasing father, the insecure mother, the depressed teen son, and the angst-filled pre-teen daughter are all told from that family member's perspective - and each of those perspectives paint a wildly different picture of Amber. While trying to figure out this stranger, they start figuring out more about themselves. Even after Amber has left, the family's story stays interesting.

The problem with this "instant" character is that, while she does a good job making you interested in the family, her own story isn't strong enough to make you care about her. Thankfully, not a lot of the book is told from her point-of-view (thought the parts that are, are written in such an artsy abstract way that makes you care even less about her). Smith successfully avoids allowing her novel's added conflict to take over the story, but in doing so she fails to give this character any story at all.

That's the only place I saw Smith's storytelling falter, and in the end it's her strong writing that overcomes the weakness of the novel's (supposed) central character. Once you see that Amber's just an additive to make the plot rise a little faster, you start to appreciate that it's the family member's stories that are the real main ingredients of the book.
… (more)
LibraryThing member plenilune
between the critical hype over this book and my great enjoyment of smith's short stories, i began this book with great expectations and finished it, well, somewhat satisfied.

it took a little while for me to be able to get into the story. where the smart family is depressing and boring in their dysfunctional averageness, amber is annoyingly overconfident and unbelievably unconventional. ultimately, though, she serves as an excellent catalyst, and the internal and external changes she brings about in each member of the smart family had me transfixed.

this is a novel of ordinary characters, extraordinarily written and worth reading.
… (more)
LibraryThing member nessreendiana
Smith has a habit of changing from one generational voice to the next. Although it is an impressive technique, it could be very annoying. The novel was good, but not good enough. I didn't quite understand it, and I thought it was a pretty terrifying book because of the anticipation it builds up. Sadly, it doesn't deliver.
LibraryThing member curiositykate
I was gripped by this book from the first page. Each of the complex characters has a unique voice which affects the style of the narration, giving each part of the book a distinctive and intense feel. The variety of different styles (even switching to poetry at one point) could easily result in a confusing and structureless story in the hands of a less talented author, but instead simply adds to the feeling of isolation each member of the Smart family struggles with.

Unfortunately, I found the ending weak and disappointing. The characters that had seemed so vivid and realistic in the start had certainly developed through the story but didn't seem to have ended up in any definite place by the end of the novel. Too many loose ends were left untied and the half-explanation of Amber's motives were unsatisfying, especially after the few tantalising glimpses we get of her past (although perhaps no explanation at all would've better suited the haunting presence she has throughout the novel).

Despite this, the innovative style of this novel definitely makes it a must read.
… (more)
LibraryThing member deargreenplace
Eve and her husband Michael are writers. They and their children Astrid and Magnus have rented a holiday home in Norfolk for the summer, so that Eve can work on her new book. One evening, a stranger named Amber arrives at the door claiming that her car has broken down.

Amber gradually worms her way into each family member's life. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member, and we see only their perceptions of Amber as she doesn't have a voice. It soon transpires that Amber is a little unorthodox, and the book is about how Eve, Michael, Astrid and Magnus deal with this.

This book is perfectly well-written, and I enjoyed Astrid and Magnus's chapters (Eve and Michael aren't the most sympathetic characters you'll ever come across) but the ending left me feeling quite ambivalent about the whole story. It didn't seem like it had much to say really, and I certainly wasn't gripped by any of the plotting, such as it was. I wondered if I had missed the point actually, given that I didn't get the Alhambra thread one little bit, but maybe it just wasn't my kind of story. There are plenty more interesting books to read than this I think.
… (more)
LibraryThing member sanddancer
A middle-class family's summer holiday is disturbed by the arrival of an unknown woman who has a profound effect on each of them. I was pleasantly surprised by this book, having read some negative comments about it. With each chapter it changes perspective from the interloper, the 12 year old daughter, the depressed 17 year old son, the philandering step-father and the writer mother. Each perspective had its own distinctive style. It was beautifully written but still easy to understand.… (more)
LibraryThing member rhondagrantham
For a book that was experiental in style I found this easy to read. I was impressed how the author managed to portray the difference perspectives, but maintain the same voice. There were references to Alice in Wonderland in the text, and i enjoyed how Amber's dialogue and actions sometimes resembled that of the characters in Wonderland. Some of the details were quite lovely and hilarious.… (more)
LibraryThing member lenoreva
Hard to get into (the first chapter is too stream of conciousness for my taste) but ultimately rewarding. I loved Eve (the mother's) book ideas and Q & A sessions.
Page: 0.4576 seconds