The Guest Who Throws a Family into Crisis ; A Mysterious Young Woman Wreaks Havoc on the Lives of the Unsuspecting Smarts

Article excerpt

Ben Franklin once quipped that visitors, like fish, stink after three days. He'd obviously never met Amber, the barefoot 30- something at the center of Ali Smith's novel The Accidental.

Amber turns up one day at the home where the Smarts are enduring their vacation, announcing, "Sorry I'm late. I'm Amber. Car broke down."

Michael, an English professor, assumes she's come to interview his wife, Eve, a bestselling author of "autobiotruefictinterviews." Eve assumes that Amber is the latest in Michael's long string of student-conquests. Astrid, 12, who's so bored that she's been filming dawns, is instantly fascinated. And Magnus, 17, who's consumed with guilt for his part in a nasty prank that caused a classmate to kill herself, thinks Amber is an angel (albeit one with dirty feet). But whether she's an angel of destruction or of mercy is an open question, depending on which character you ask.

In the confusion, Amber gets invited to dinner, and all the Smarts fall in love with her. She ignores Michael; taunts Eve; takes Astrid on field trips, then throws her video camera off a bridge; and saves Magnus from suicide, then seduces him.

"We'll be away about an hour, long enough for me to ravish him sexually then bring him back safely, is that okay?" she announces brightly to his parents, who laugh at this uproarious joke.

Not since Sheridan Whiteside inflicted himself on the Stanleys in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" has a houseguest caused such upheaval in a staid middle-class family. (Actually, the plot is apparently taken from a 1968 movie, Pasolini's "Theorem," starring Terence Stamp. Amber also is a close cousin of Will Smith's ingratiating liar in "Six Degrees of Separation," although she never bothers with charm.)

Scottish writer Ali Smith's sixth book won a prestigious Whitbread Award last week and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. (Like another Booker finalist, Zadie Smith's lovely "On Beauty," it's ultimately way more fun to read than the winner, "The Sea.")

"The Accidental" has some marvelous characterizations - Astrid is the book's crowning glory - and the writing brims with wit, humor, and energy. Smith gives each character their own style: Eve is interviewed Q&A-style, like her books; Astrid is stream-of- consciousness; while Michael holds forth as if he's lecturing to a hall of rapt freshmen (with mental asides to congratulate himself on his own cleverness).

Then he breaks into sonnets - and the poetry is as accomplished as Smith's impersonation of a clever, unhappy, foul-mouthed preteen. (Truly foul-mouthed - there's a prodigious amount of profanity and sex in the novel. …