2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens
Reviewed by Alana Joli Abbott
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:12 (#353) in December 2011.]
In Alma Alexander’s new novel, Midnight at the Spanish Gardens, the border between this world and another one can be bridged at certain, vital points. But though it is a kind of magic that allows those moments to bridge, the world on the other side is a reflection, a possibility—a world that a person might choose instead of the life they’ve created. Open a door, experience life as it might have been if a choice had never been made, if fate or chance had spread the cards differently, if different opportunities had been taken. For five characters, the choice is literal: each experiences a different path than they’ve taken before, and each must make the choice to re-turn to the life they knew, or to accept the new life they’ve made for themselves. Each has its own failures and joys; sometimes the choice is heart-wrenching, and sometimes it’s almost an intellectual exercise for the one choosing. But each voyage raises the question: what in this life have I done that is worth keeping?
The novel opens on the eve of the supposed Mayan end of the world, with Olivia, a woman dissatisfied with her life and her failures, going back to a cafe where she’d spent time as an undergrad to reconnect with friends she hasn’t seen in more than twenty years. One, Simon, is a successful literary novelist, who was once Olivia’s lover, and who betrayed her by turning the story of her brother’s war experience into a novel philosophically against the war. Another, Ellen, is Simon’s wife, and Olivia’s former best friend, the woman to whom Simon turned after he and Olivia fought about the novel. Quincey, like Olivia, has suffered from a bad marriage, although in Quincey’s case it is more than one, and though she loves her children, she feels as though she’s missing a key factor in her life. John, who’d seemed to be a party animal in college and who’d once harbored feelings for Olivia, has a troubled past of his own. As Simon, the last to arrive, enters the cafe (known for its Irish Coffee), the bartender, an enigmatic man named Ariel with powerful, gray eyes, recommends that he take a moment to collect himself in the Out of Order bathroom—and gives him written instructions on what to do. ”Your life is filled with crossroads and you are free to choose one road or another at any time… Choose wisely.” Simon is the first to be launched into a different life, a view of what would have happened had his mother not survived the car crash that killed his father. Who would he have become in that other life, and who would he choose to be, given the chance to look at the results of both in a single moment?
After Simon, Quincey, John, Ellen, and Olivia one by one live those different lives, seeing new choices replace old ones. What might have happened in Quincey’s life if she’d discovered her own sexuality? In John’s if the truth about his birth mother had been kept from him until far later in his life? In Ellen’s if she’d been born the boy her parents and grandparents hoped for? In Olivia’s if she’d only listened to the hurtful critique about herself that Simon made upon her graduation? Some of those lives are joyful ones and some are just as fraught as the lives they’d initially led. In each of them, Olivia is a lynch pin, a figure who enables other things to happen, even if she appears only briefly and seemingly unimportantly. And it is Olivia whose sense of the numinous, of the convergence of worlds, brings the novel together. Ariel, too, appears in each life, sometimes briefly, and sometimes with deeper conversation, serving as the Messenger (for Fate? for God? we never learn), but also as a curious witness to what has transpired. He recognizes when the choice is made, and it is his job to help the person realize their own decision, even when they haven’t yet seen it.
Alexander’s language is poetic and beautiful, but where in some novels the language becomes more important than the story being told, Alexander’s descriptions only add to the narrative. Her characters are utterly compelling—more than once I had to force myself to put the book down, and on one occasion, I stood in a doorway, intending to leave a room to stop reading for the night, and yet, found myself flipping page after page in my ebook reader, unable to take the steps that would lead to the end of my reading. The questions about lives led differently followed me right out of the book, as well: what choices might I have made differently? Who might I have become? While the question each character faces is what they’ve done or created that is worth keeping—that is worth going back to—each of them takes some wisdom from their other life with them, when all the details are forgotten. Some of that wisdom—about what a person can do to make their life worth keeping from this moment on—comes through not just for each character, but for the reader as well. That may be the magic inherent in the Spanish Gardens: looking through the lens of that potential choice, you can see your own life differently—and make it a better one.
2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens. Alma Alexander. Sky Warrior Books, 2011. eBook, $3.99.