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3.2 out of 5 stars
There But For The: A Novel
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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 22, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
'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.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 11, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 3, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
One of the things I'm often accused of in my reviews is that I rarely tell the plot of a story.
The reason for that is that I'm a great believer in (Roger) Ebert's Premise which (I paraphrase) is: "A Work of art is not WHAT it's about, but HOW it is about it!"
Take this (fill in your best superlative... it will be accurate) book by the marvelous Ali Smith.
If I tell you that it's about a man at a dinner party who locks himself in a room and refuses to leave, and that's ALL the plot there is, you'll think I'm nuts telling you it's a must read! (Some of the more literate among you may even detect a whiff of Melville's "BartlebY")
If I tell you that the story of this man is related to us by four separate characters, ages between 10 and Octogenery, you'll shrug and I'll be lying since these four possess only varying degrees of NOT KNOWING MUCH ABOUT HIM AT ALL.
So what do we have?
A book with no plot told by characters who don't have much of a clue about the only plot point the book has. What on earth am I raving about!?!?
Only the funniest, most brilliant, most moving, most enjoyable book of, not only this year, but possibly, of the decade!
That's what!
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Ali Smith's novel is the type of book I look for in every genre. Whether it is mystery, romance, historical, young adult, or science fiction, a novel can be discovered that captures the life of the mind of the characters. After all, that is what the story of There But For The is all about, the rich, articulate communication inside the confines of the head and the affirmation by others of the contents.

Four main characters varying in age, gender, economic status, education, living style, and location have a common characteristic that is shared by the reader, a self-contained dialogue. The voice in the heads of all four (five counting the reader) is not a monologue because it is spoken in sentences as if someone else can hear. Questions are sometimes answered and opinions shared as the outwardly nondescript characters speak their complex and observant language to themselves. While doing this, they maintain a largely passive countenance on the street and in the social intimacy of friends and family.

Songs provide fodder for the mental conversations and, "the problem now of course is, to simply hold your horses" as the characters carefully seek (but do not always find) like-minded souls who do not mind sharing mindful information. The chance meetings of people who can trade aspects of their inner voices become the characters' (and the reader's) most important hallmarks of personal history. Often brief, the shared thoughts when they occur leave lasting traces that in retrospect are life-changing.

Whether the character is a young girl like 10 year old Brooke, an older woman like 80 year old May, a man in his 60s like Mark, or a woman in her 40s like Anna, there may be, if they are lucky, an internally charismatic but nebulous individual like Miles who can make statements that stimulate the characters' uttering of unedited inner observations. Whether Miles is a figment of of the characters' imaginations or they are figments of his, the communications with him face to face or symbolically are peak experiences.

The story takes place in London and is told from the points of view of the four characters so vitally affected by Miles. It is a beautiful, poignant group portrait of lonely people who become remarkably courageous as they involve themselves with Miles. It is not the courage of self-serving secret criticism of other people all day while putting on good faces. It is the stepping out of the confines of the head, sending little feelers to others hoping to find kindred spirits; telling someone, "There you are."

But we are all at least partial shut-ins, physically and mentally. Is the shutting in an end or a beginning? For, if it is an end, then there would be no more honest conversation with others, only listening to yourself while looking out of hopeless eyes. The fact is you. Only by sharing your inner uninhibited dialogue with a unique, courageous other (even symbolically like the reader of this novel) can you reveal this wonderful self-fact to the world and have that fact affirmed.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Ali Smith's work has always been refreshing and energizing, and in "The But For The" she has branched out in new and profoundly exciting ways. Her beguiling prose and uncanny sense of dialogue will steal your heart, making it almost impossible to stop reading, until you find yourself in the early hours of the morning, exhilarated, wondering if you can go to work on no sleep and survive only on the energy the pages have given you. (You can. I discovered that). It's that rarest of all books, one you yearn to re-read almost immediately the last page has ended. And indeed, that is exactly Smith's intent, as the stories circle round, nudging us to go back to page one with fresh eyes. Re-reading then becomes a truly enriching experience - the patterns in the prose leap out in greater detail, the humor is even more entertaining, and the ironies deeper.

I've bought several copies of this book. That's because each time I've "loaned" them to friends, knowing full well I'll never get them back. Yes, it's that good. So do not hesitate for one second. Buy this book.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I really did. I just could not force myself through it. I really wanted to like this book. The blurb sounded so good! The good reviews here intrigued me. Seemed to me, what is there to not like? Well, a lot, as it turned out. The author never once uses quotation marks to indicate when people are talking and you just have to figure that out on your own. I did not like that at all. It was a stumbling block for me. The sentences themselves went on and on. The dialogue between characters was so trite, it wasn't believable. I had to re-read things I'd read because I never knew what was going on. I found myself in the middle of the book not really knowing who any of the characters were and not caring. I do wish that it had been easier to read because the premise was so good! But I can't force myself to try and read it any further.
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14 of 19 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 16, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I did not finish this book. I am admitting that up front for full disclosure. I thought about not writing this review because of that - but I read most of the book, and I really did try to finish this book...but it the end - there was just too much.

Sentences that went on too long. Paragraphs that went on for pages. Thoughts inside of thoughts inside of thoughts - thoughts of characters who appear to be only tangentially connected to the story.

But I'd read many good reviews of "There But for The" - and it seemed as if it was a book I would love - it was right there in the interesting title. And it was about a man who went to a dinner party and then never left. And no one knew why he wouldn't leave.

"Did he want to know what it felt like to not be in the world? Had he closed the door on himself so he would know what it feels like, to be a prisoner?"

But after reading and reading and reading - I just felt as if I wasn't getting anywhere. I barely knew what was going on. I'd glimpse some flashes of aspects that seemed something like belonging to the book I'd imagined, "His aunt has an ancient pug called Polly. The pug's face looks ruined, melted. It looks like what Mark thinks the word tragedy would look like if it were a physical reality, a thing not just a word."

But I just couldn't finish. I read the back of my copy of the book again and I am sure it's probably just me...but I think to understand the book I read most of...I will have to go back and read those other reviews once more.
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