Thursday, July 5, 2012

Which Life Will You Own as Yours? Alma Alexander's 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens

Everyone thinks "what if?" every once in a while--"What if I were richer?" "What if I lived in a different city?"  But these are fairly general speculation.  The more interesting kind of "what if?" questions are those that focus on specific moments, particular choices, linchpins, if you will--"What if I had broken up with him earlier?" "What if I had taken that other job?"  While these sorts of questions can sometimes lead to self-indulgent regret, they can also open up interesting possibilities about what your life could be like.

It's this second kind of "what if?" question that is at the heart of Alma Alexander's 2011 novel 2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens.  The novel tells the story of five friends who meet at a tucked-away restaurant/bar/hangout called The Spanish Gardens, 20 years after they were in college together.  Simon and Ellen are now married to each other and both successful authors, though Simon is a New York Times bestseller and Ellen "just" writes children's books.  Quincey has three kids and is recovering from her second marriage to a politician.  John works for an international aid organization, and Olivia--well, Olivia is a bit of an enigma.

Each of these five characters is pulled aside by a waiter named Ariel (certainly a reference to The Tempest) and sent into an alternate version of their lives.  Simon, for instance, rather than being a successful author, is instead a beloved college professor who has several students who have gone on to get book contracts.  But at some point during each character's alternate life, Ariel reappears, and for a few short moments, the characters remember both lives at once--and they have to choose.  Which life will it be?

Alexander does a fantastic job with the alternate histories of Simon, Quincey, and John.  There were secondary characters in each of these stories that I found myself really caring about--Simon's grandmother, for instance, and John's patients at the hospital.  What was intriguing to me, though, is that my interest in these alternate lives didn't translate to interest in the original character that I had met in The Spanish Gardens, and who reappears in various "Intermezzos" throughout the novel.  I grew to care about the Simon who was in the alternate universe, not the Simon that the text seemed to be treating as "the original."  And so, when it came time for these characters to choose, without fail, I was hoping they would choose the alternate life.

This all, then, made me wonder: if I were given a choice like the characters in the novel, would I choose to leave my current life behind?  Does my interest in the alternate histories of the characters stem from a dissatisfaction with my own life?

A brief reflection assured me that I am indeed happy with my own life, and that my interest in Alexander's alternate characters is primarily due to the structure of the book.  We get to know the alternate characters, not the "original" ones, and so it only makes sense that I would be most interested in seeing these lives pursued to the fullest. 

And this leads up to what I see as the greatest weakness of the book: I didn't care about Olivia at all.  Olivia is the character Alexander starts with, the one who leads us to The Spanish Garden, the one who is the glue holding the group of friends together, the one who has pulled back the farthest from the others.  We don't get much backstory from her at the beginning of the novel, though, instead getting a rather clunky frame where she envisions herself writing her return to the hangout spot.  This frame makes much more sense near the end of the novel, but the lack of emotional connection to Olivia and slightly awkward narrative structure made it difficult for me to get into the novel.  It wasn't until almost 40 pages in when Simon's story started that I really became engaged in the book.

I also would change the title and, in fact, the whole idea behind the title--namely, that it's December 20, 2012, and everyone is (lightheartedly) facing the end of the world.  The ideas that the novel engages with--of choosing to own the life you're living--are powerful enough on their own that they don't need something more to make them more exciting and dangerous.  Facing the possibility that you might want to live a different life, and then finding out what you need to do to make that different life happen, is exciting and dangerous enough on its own.