Book Review: Midnight at Spanish Gardens, by Alma Alexander
Just before Christmas in 1947, my grandfather boarded a small private plane bound for Seward, Alaska. He had finished treating the ailments of the Natives on the Aleutian Islands, and he radioed my grandmother to pick him up from the tiny airport. His plane was last seen banking over Resurrection Bay, but it never landed. Alone with four children, my grandmother later remarried a rancher in eastern Montana, a brilliant, but troubled man that struggled with severe depression.
What would our lives be like had Daddy B. not disappeared? Grandma would not have needed to come back down to the lower 48, nor would she have needed to marry Art. My parents wouldn't have met in Glendive, Montana. I would never have been born, much less raised on my step-grandfather's ranch. Daddy B. was a warm and gregarious man, Art very stern and critical. Would my dad and his siblings turned out differently? Would Grandma have still refused to come down to the big ranch house for Christmas, preferring to be alone with her memories?
I don't think there's a person alive that doesn't wonder about what might have been had ______(fill in the blank) turned out differently. In Midnight at Spanish Gardens, five old friends meet on the eve of the prophesied end of the world. They are given the opportunity to go back and change the course of their lives, finding out what would have happened had they made different choices, taken different paths, even if they had born a different gender. Four choose to stay on the same path. One does not.
The book, written by Alma Alexander, is available today, August 1st. Ms. Alexander, originally born in Yugoslavia, has written ten books by my count, most of them published in several different languages.
If you like books that are more about choices and emotions, Midnight at Spanish Gardens is a good choice. There is no question that Ms. Alexander is an incredibly talented writer. I tend to prefer quirky and endearing characters, as well as characters that have interestingly flawed personalities. I'm also drawn to things I find profound, and what I find profound is entirely subjective. I did not connect with the characters in the book, but I feel that is mostly due to personal preference and not poor quality.
I loved the scene with the pasta. It created a nice little moment, and also served to tie a number of narrative strings, er...noodles together. Additionally, the musical references were fun for me. Sections were titled, “Intermezzo,” and, “Coda.” Though the songs were never specifically named, I was able to identify the Gershwin songs two of the characters enjoyed. I love it when authors work the arts into their writing.
I found that I liked the latter sections of the book much more than the beginning. I thought the first character's alternate history was a bit long and sagged. In the latter portions of the book, the author did a great deal to change up how the alternate histories were constructed, how the characters made their choices, and how they interacted with the guide that took them down the alternate paths.
Sometimes, when a class is overly rowdy, we teachers will flick the lights off to get them to quiet down. We all know that trick will only work once. Overusing the trick makes it lose its impact and the kids feel free to hang from the ceiling while the fluorescents are flicked frantically on and off. Overuse of a few narrative devices lessened my enjoyment of the book.
I’m not certain if it was the publisher’s or the author’s choice, but italics are overused. Using italics to convey meaning, rather than for grammatical purposes, should be used sparingly. :-) I found that rather than making the meaning more clear, it forced meaning down the audience's collective throats.
The author's fondness for adjectives and adverbs occasionally made the prose dance just this side of being overwritten. The phrase, "Beautifully, headily, cathartically tipsy..." would have worked had it been the only time it occurred, but the adjectives and adverbs were used a little liberally. This is most apparent in the first fifty pages. The early pages were a bit info-dumpy, as well. Not too bad, but just enough to make some of the dialogue feel less than natural.
There were things I really liked, some things I really didn't, and a lot of things that would really depend on the reader. Though each character had a lot at stake personally, there was very little at stake beyond each character's own life. I think this is partly why I didn't connect with the characters, but I don't think that would be the case with all readers. I think there are quite a few women in my book club that would like the book.
It felt a little bit more like literary fiction than fantasy. Before you scream and label me a cretin, realize that I do like literary fiction. I'm not just that into books about self-discovery and life journeys. Though it wasn't my cup of tea, I think there are a number of folks out there that would enjoy Midnight at Spanish Gardens.