The Accidental by Ali Smith
The plot is simple: a middle class British family rent a holiday cottage in Norfolk that turns out to be disappointing, hardly the idyllic rural cottage they imagined. Eve—wife, mother, and main breadwinner—has initiated this holiday because she thinks in a new setting she'll be able to get over her writer’s block. She's semi-well-known for a series called "Genuine Articles" in which she writes fictional biographies of real but ordinary people from the past. So far she's focused on people from the World War II period, but this time she's stuck—ends up lying on the floor of the shed she's appropriated for writing. Her husband is Michael, an English professor who's been seducing students for years. Magnus is 17 and Astrid is almost 13. Into their lives comes Amber in her Volvo. Eve thinks she’s one of Michael’s students (she knows about his behavior with young girls) and Michael thinks her car broke down. Astrid thinks she’s a friend of her mother. Magnus is distracted by the recent suicide of a classmate which seems to have been precipitated by a practical joke in which he participated. Amber (short for Alhambra—she says she was born in a theatre of that name) is invited for dinner and retires to sleep in her car. Pretty soon she’s initiated herself into the household, providing what each needs but also finding out all their confidential information. But she’s also forward and sometimes insulting and eventually gets herself kicked out, leaving family members to reconfigure their lives without her.
The success of this novel does not depend on plot, however; but rather on the language and the turns of subject that occur in the minds of the characters. The narrative point of view is brilliant; told in the third person, each character’s section nevertheless preserves both the language and the thoughts of the character. We understand the histories, the preoccupations, the angsts of each member of the family as well as see their interactions with each other. It’s like seeing the household as an iceberg and recognizing that nine tenths of the “action” is going on internally beneath the family's surface, in the minds of the individual characters, and knowing that all of that under-the-surface mass is far more powerful than everyday interactions would suggest. Amber looks under the surface—that where lies the secret of her success in influencing them.
The plot resolves brilliantly—if by the end of the book you care much about the plot. I highly recommend this one. I intend to read it again.