Posted on August 16, 2011 by alanajoli
Available at Amazon.com
Midnight at the Spanish Gardens is not the kind of book I normally review for Flames Rising. It is certainly a fantasy novel, but the fantasy elements don’t actually end up being all that important: the book revolves around the choices that people make in their lives, and what they might do differently if they had it to do all over again — or if fate or chance had played out the events differently. But while it’s not truly a dark fantasy, I wanted to review it here after reading an ARC from the author because this is the type of book that held me and didn’t let me go. I actually stood in a doorway the first night I was reading it, intending to walk somewhere to put it down, expecting to head off to bed for the night, but I flipped page after page in my nook and kept reading, standing there, for probably twenty minutes. Then, realizing I clearly wasn’t going to stop, I gave up my rational decision to head to bed and sat down and read more instead. Not only that, but even when I wasn’t reading the book, I was thinking about it. That experience tells me that this is a book worth sharing.
In the opening of Midnight at the Spanish Gardens, Alma Alexander introduces Olivia, an unhappy woman who clearly wishes for a life that had gone differently. She’s going to a familiar old restaurant, the Spanish Gardens, to meet with friends she hasn’t seen for more than twenty years, to catch up on their lives. It makes her nervous, as she parted with some of them on bad terms: Simon, who was her lover, betrayed her by turning her brother’s war stories into a novel; Ellen, her best friend, was the woman Simon turned to for comfort after the fight, and a pregnancy (and marriage between the two of them) swiftly followed. In avoiding those two, she’s also avoided Quincey and John, people who might otherwise have been better friends. One by one, each member of the quintet is given the opportunity, unknown to the others, to see a different version of their own lives. The enigmatic bartender Ariel hands each one of them, in turn, instructions on how to see a different path, in the knowledge that, only for a moment, they will have the memories of both lives, and they will have to choose which one is theirs.
The decisions each of them makes at the end come down to different matters: for one it’s the chance to be a star or the role of a mentor; for another it’s true love or the children she’s brought into the world. Sometimes the choice is one of pride, other times of intellectual exercise. But the question beneath each of them — what have I done in this life that’s worth keeping? — has a resonance beyond the magic that gave them the choice.
Alexander’s language is lovely and poetic, but she never lets it get in the way of the story she’s telling. The imagery is beautiful, the setting is compelling, and the character of the mysterious and magical Ariel, a Messenger (for Fate? for God? we never find out), is compelling. But it’s the characters that drive this story, in all of their imperfection, in all of their passion or disconnection or feeling of failure. And the conceit is one that will linger — if you saw a different life, a different path you might have taken, would you trade the joys and failures of this one for the joys and failures of the other? What would you sacrifice for the things you truly care about in your own world? The magic of looking at your own life through the lens of the Spanish Gardens and take a little wisdom away may well be hidden within the novel’s pages, no tragic choice required.
Review by Alana Abbott
Tags | urban fantasy