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Friday Indie Review! 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens by Alma Alexander

This book immediately reached out and grabbed me.  The author explores regret and unfulfilled potentials from many different perspectives in this story.   It was, at all times, an intense and interesting read.  I can’t say it was always a comfortable one. However, since people don’t usually re-evaluate their perspectives while they’re comfortable, that’s actually a good thing for this book.

As the story begins, five old college friends meet up at one of their old haunts, just over twenty years after they’ve graduated, on the night before the “Mayan Apocalypse.”  These five people have grown somewhat apart over the intervening years, but their “past and present” is still tangled and woven together in ways that not even they completely realize. A sense of sadness, frustration, and missed opportunities permeated the introductions we’re given to their present lives, though most of them do reach a catharsis by the end of the book.

Olivia, who is the first character we meet, is an open, wallowing wound of regrets.  Since leaving college, she’s never really done much with her degree and has been through a bad marriage and divorce.  She basically floated through her life, from one job to another, washing up on shore wherever the tide took her. She flinches away from sharing any of her more-recent past with her old friends, though in reality, she seems like her own harshest critic.

John is the next character we meet.  While affable and jolly on the surface, he carries a past full of pain and betrayal with him as well.  Those insecurities kept him from expressing the attraction he felt toward Olivia during college, and his reaction on seeing her is a mix of awkward happiness and remembered pain.

Quincey is a single mom whose first husband died young, and her second husband, a Congressman, cheated on her more than once.  She divorced him and took the kids on the understanding that she wouldn’t go to the media about his infidelities. She doesn’t regret leaving him, but she is feeling burdened by all of responsibilities and the pressures of being a single parent to three kids.

Simon and Ellen (his wife), are both authors; however, Simon has been much more commercially successful than Ellen.  She sometimes feels like  he looks at her as if she is just a dabbler encroaching on his territory.  To make matters worse, in an awkward twist of fate Simon used to be engaged to Olivia, while Ellen was Olivia’s former best friend.  Simon and Olivia had a spectacular blowout-fight over a book he wrote, which left them both feeling alone and betrayed.  Simon assumed that Olivia had just broken up with him, and turned to Ellen for support and comfort.  For Olivia, this second betrayal from both of them just compounded the first, although it’s now far in the past.

This meeting at the Spanish Gardens is the first time the three of them have actually talked since those cataclysmic events twenty-one years ago.  As the five friends drink Irish Coffees and  re-hash past joys and sorrows, they are each separately approached by a mysterious messenger named Ariel. He offers each person the chance to go back into their pasts and choose a different life.  Once they take him up on the offer, they’ll only remember their present life when it is time to choose whether to come back.  If they decide to stay in their alternate timeline, their current life will cease to exist, including any effects their lives may have had on any of the others–whether good or bad.  The only advice Ariel offers as they each depart to meet a different present-self is: “Choose wisely.”

As each character lives through an alternate course of events, they learn more about themselves, and sometimes, each other.  While they can’t take take the memories back with them, they can take some of the lessons learned, and that elusive sense of Deja Vu.

To be honest, I already had high expectations when I picked up this book, based on the story description and what I’ve read of Alma Alexander’s previous works, and I’m glad to say this book definitely did not disappoint. It it smart, thought provoking, and beautifully written.  She balances the mundane and the mythical in this story with deceptive ease.  In spite of the fact that I know what she’s accomplished in weaving those (often clashing) elements together so seamlessly is not in anyway easy. The whole book flows forward with a smoothness that just draws the reader further and further into these characters’ lives, and their alternate lives as well.

This story is highly recommended, and I found myself wishing for a sequel that would unravel some of the mystery around Ariel and his equally intriguing superiors. While we’re at it, I wouldn’t mind finding out if Quincey ever finds her bookstore.  This book is one where I really wasn’t ready for the story to end, and yet at the same time, it satisfied everything I wanted as a reader.  I sat at my desk wondering what to do with myself for a good half an hour after finishing, because I didn’t want to pick up anything else yet.

That doesn’t happen very often, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what this author writes next.
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