Midnight at Spanish Gardens

This is one of two reviews I’ll be posting this week. I mentioned this book last month, as well as the author, Alma Alexander. If you’ve never read anything by her before, do yourself a favor and do so. I first read Secrets of Jin-Shei, which is one place to start with her work. Midnight at Spanish Gardens, her latest book, is another.

This book starts with college friends gathering for an informal reunion at a restaurant they used to frequent on the eve of “the end of the world” — December 20, 2012. There are tensions between them, things left unsaid as well as perhaps some things that would have been better left unsaid. During the course of their evening, they discover an unusual feature of the restaurant: a way to go back to the past and live a different life. A chance at a do-over.

The characters are people I felt I could know, and my heart ached for their pains, for Olivia, uncertain she wanted to show up at Spanish Gardens; for Simon as a child; for Quincey’s experience of love; for John, learning to define himself without referring to his father; for Ellen feeling trapped by her sex. The details of each life are believable, making each one fully realized, and some of the prose is simply beautiful. Alexander also has one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the mental life of a writer, with the internal editor who sees every flaw. Her mention of the problem with going into science when one has a soul of a poet is something I understand as well, and as for the comment about watching the stars go out overhead — I laughed. I won’t spoil anything by telling you of individual decisions, but I will say that I can understand how hard such a choice might be.

There are some things that nagged me about the writing — I couldn’t decide whether some elements (like the girl with green and purple streaks in her hair) were there for resonance between stories, or if they were accidental duplications of description. Similarly, I found “apprising” occurred frequently enough for me to notice it (especially as it should have been “appraising” in each case). The discussion of Ellen’s background threw me a bit because I was under the impression that naming someone for a relative, while a traditional thing to do, did not usually mean giving them the same name in Jewish culture, but rather something else starting with the same letter. (I could be wrong, or this could vary in different groups. I’m just saying that it threw me.) So it’s not perfect, but it’s still such an enjoyable read that I finished it in the span of a day.

Remember this before you decide. Here, you change the world around you; there, you have to change to fit the world. Both are harder than you think. Choose wisely.

When it comes down to it, that’s what this book is about: choice, how our choices shape our lives, and how we always have a choice. We may not have the choice to go back, to relive our lives from an earlier point, no matter how common of a refrain “If I had it to do over again” is, but we do make choices for what we’re doing all the time.

I can understand why people might want a second chance. I don’t think I’d do anything differently; I like where my life has placed me. If you had the chance to go back and alter a major turning point in your life, would you? If you’re interested in seeing what others might do, in a sympathetic and well-thought-out manner, pick up this book. It’s time well spent.

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