December 20th, 2012. The end of the world, some might say. Five friends meet up twenty years after college, at Spanish Gardens, an old and favorite gathering spot. Olivia. John. Quincey. Ellen. Simon. Over Irish Coffees, they’ll hash out old memories and catch up on twenty years’ worth of happenings. For Olivia, who’s been the most out of touch, it’ll be a time of revelation and no little recrimination. For the rest…it’s a time to reflect on what has been and what might have been. And then things take a turn for the weird.
One by one, the five get up to use the restroom. One by one, over the course of the night, they’re met by the mysterious bartender Ariel, who gives them a sheet of instructions. Enter the restroom, and make a choice. Return to the same old life they’ve been living, or take a chance on a different path. Choose wisely. One by one, they encounter their alternate lives, and make their choices.
For Simon, it’s an opportunity to relive his childhood, and to take a very different course of action with his writing career. In one world, he’s a talented writer with a complicated family dynamic. In the other, he’s a renowned teacher who lives alone. How does he want to be remembered?
For Quincey, who married a Congressman and experienced an unhappy marriage, it’s an opportunity to explore the flip side of her sexuality, in an alternate life where she fell in love with the theatrical Dorotea. But can this life, where she’s loved and in love, happy and fulfilled, still compete with the world where she’s a wife and mother?
For John, whose family and ethnic heritage has always been a source of internal conflict and turmoil, it’s the chance to reinvent himself. To find the love that escaped him the first time around. To embrace his calling as a doctor. To find a new relationship with his father. But when the choice comes, which path makes him the happiest?
For Ellen, who’s always struggled with her gender issues and expectations, it’s the opportunity to life out life as a man instead. But is this correcting the universe’s mistake, or was she simply meant to be a woman? Ellen or Allen, woman or man, a long life or a short one, a happy life or a sad one. Allen’s conversation with Ariel proves illuminating and alarming, as he’s granted further glimpses at the what ifs and maybes of his potential lives. In the end, he too has to make his decision.
For Olivia, in some ways the linchpin of the group and in other ways the outsider, it’s a choice between playing it safe and taking a risk. Between science and poetry. But her choice is somehow more profound, more meaningful, more complex than that of her friends, and it comes with lasting consequences they never could have imagined.
In these five stories, which intertwine with one another against a thought-provoking framing sequence, Alma Alexander plays a complicated game of possibilities and potentials. She explores gender and sexuality, family and legacy, metaphysics and philosophy. Character-driven and atmospheric, Midnight at Spanish Gardens is as fascinating as it is tricky to pin down. As her five protagonists explore their alternative paths, their deepest secrets and best-hidden desires are laid bare.
Each story is a little weirder and more sophisticated than the ones before. Simon’s story is almost simple by comparison to Ellen’s, which plays around with multiple lives and gets into some deep thinking. And all of them pale in comparison to Olivia’s tale, which actually plays with whether or not she was even there to begin with.
On the whole, my favorite episode was Quincey’s, as Alexander skillfully and sympathetically portrays a genuinely sweet, playful, fulfilling lesbian romance. The least satisfying was probably Ellen’s, which doesn’t get a chance to show us a whole lot of her life as Allen, instead skipping over much of his new life in favor of an extended conversation with the mysterious Ariel (also called The Messenger for obvious reasons.)
In the end, Midnight at Spanish Gardens is intriguing, frustrating, magical, literary, and slippery when you try to wrap your mind around it. While it may not be for everyone, it’s an excellent tale that defies easy classification, and a genuine overlooked treasure.
(Sky Warrior Books, 2011)