Alma Alexander is put into the genre of fantasy writer, but I consider her work to be closer to literary fiction.
There really wasn't anything so fantastic that in this book that you had to work hard at suspending belief. It was an oft-told tale of what if you had made different choices in your life--if you chose to sell your soul for easy success as in a professor who should have kept at his own writing instead of developing his students' success, or if you chose self-fulfillment over parenting.
The "gimmicks" in which these choices are revealed and offered again are not strange. Ariel is a most gentle and objective angel of sorts, who only near the end becomes personally excited when one of the five friends he has been following all their lives actually "gets" what the choices are all about. And so do we. Like the Faust legend, some choices are life-shifting and irreversible…Others are as easily reversed as a phone call. But in reality, at any point we have the choice to start over…
This was an enjoyable book on the choices five friends made, and sometimes unmade, with the help of the gray-eyed Ariel at the mysterious Spanish Gardens college hangout.
When the voice came from behind her, familiar and barely changed by the twenty years that had passed, she froze for a moment, like a hunted hare.
She turned on her heel, sharply, her arms not so much crossed as grasping one another, her fingers and knuckles white with pressure where they gripped the complementary elbow.
Simon’s hair had also turned gray, but he had kept all of it, and almost kept the old style he used to wear it in – slightly longer than a respected novelist and a University professor ought by rights to wear it and be considered respectable, waving back from his forehead just like it had used to do when he was still her brother’s best friend, and her own heart’s desire.
Her mouth curved in what might, in other circumstances, have been described as a smile but there was something in her eyes that made Simon actually take a step back as if he had been struck. It might have been a smile, once. Right now, it was a slash of pain.
“For God’s sake, what did I do?” Simon demanded, his eyebrows coming together in a bewildered frown.
“You remind me,” Olivia said savagely, skipping small talk entirely.
“Of all the things you were. Of all the things that David could have been.”
“David…?” Simon sounded thrown. That was a name from the past, and not, for better or worse, one he had come here armed with. He made a valiant effort to regroup. “David made his own choices, I was hardly his conscience…”
“You were his friend.”
Simon shut his mouth with a snap. “Not his keeper,” he said finally, tightly leashed, his control of the words that left his mouth almost visible. “But I don’t think David is really the matter.”
“He was the origin.”
“Of my own life. Of the things that I went on to do. Once David chose what he chose – and then you weighed in – everything went bad, after that.”
“Let’s see. If I remember correctly, David enlisted and went to the Gulf. Your family shredded into political streamers and your mother is still not talking to your father who is not really speaking to you – well that was the situation, and I think it’s still pretty much current, knowing what I do about your father. And you, once upon a time, talked to me about it…”
“I told you all the things that David told me. I showed you the letters. You were his friend.”
“Yes… and then I wrote a book about it,” Simon said. “That’s one of the flashpoints, isn’t it?”
“You used him,” Olivia whispered.
“Used him? Liv, I wrote about the horrors of it. I wrote what you thought. Not what David wrote about. He was proud of what he was; I don’t think you will find much of that in the book that I wrote. I was against the damned war. Same as you.”
“You were against it for all the wrong reasons.” Olivia said.
“Which are?… Does it really matter?”
“It mattered then,” Olivia said. “It mattered enough, back then, to make for a nice bonfire, anyway. One I burned a lot of things on.”
Simon crossed his own arms, leaning back a little. “You built it,” he said. “The bonfire.”
“You betrayed my confidence, and your friend,” Olivia said. “And then, when I called you on it, when you showed me the first draft of the book…”
“I remember it well,” Simon said. “I’ve never seen you that furious, or that inarticulate. You shrieked.”
“I never shriek.”
“You did then. My neighbors came around after you stormed out to ask who won World War Three. You don’t even remember it.”
Olivia tilted her head a little. “It’s a little… hazy.”
“Incandescent rage will do that,” Simon said dryly.
“And then you slept with my best friend,” Olivia said, her voice suddenly flat and level, icy. The best friend in question was currently only the thickness of a brick wall away – Simon’s wife, now, mother of his children. “Was that payback?”
“I thought you had just broken up with me,” Simon said.
“But… Ellen,” Olivia said.
“She was there,” Simon said. “And she said yes.”
“But you asked.”
“It takes two to make that decision. Olivia, what do you want from me?”
Olivia turned away, bowing her head, letting her hair fall over her face like a concealing curtain. “I have no idea,” she said dully. “I just wish… if all of us had made different choices, I might have had a different life.” After a moment she glanced up again, her lips twisting into another small bitter smile. “You were a lousy teacher.”
“That’s not true,” Simon said, stung.
“Oh, but it is. You were of the ‘it’s never going to be good enough’ school, and you passed that on, more than you knew.” She paused. “You called me misguided once, right here in this place, the night after graduation, remember?”
“Yes,” Simon said warily. “I said that.”
‘I took it at face value, back then. I never asked. I’m asking now. Why?”
“Because you had just walked away with a degree that would never make you happy,” Simon said. “The diploma was still hot off the presses, and you were making plans about where to go from here, and already the regrets hung about you like a shroud.”
“I was happy,” Olivia said. “By rights I ought to have been miserable. So how come nobody else noticed but you?”
“Because I knew you,” Simon said gently. “Your passions were always words, not numbers. If you were to have anything to do with science, it was going to be writing poetry about the gas nebulae or visions about what it meant to be human as they unravelled the human genome.”
“You think I wasn’t capable of doing the actual science behind those things?”
“Who said you weren’t capable?” Simon said. “Don’t put words in my mouth. But the capability wasn’t going to make you happy. You could have probably designed a star drive – but what you really wanted to do was be on that rocket ship when it left this planet and send back poetry about the strange new worlds it would land on. A scientist, Olivia, cares about the how of things – you always cared more about the why, or the who. Dissecting a flower or a frog or a human being might have made you enlightened, but it would never have made you happy.”
“Damn you,” she said, after a pause.
“What does that mean? Do you forgive me?…” Simon said, and then tossed his head in a frustrated movement, spreading his hands. “Will you tell me what it is that you forgive me for?”
Olivia made a small sound that was halfway between a sob and a giggle. “If you don’t get it, Simon, there’s little point in it. Excuse me, I need to pop into the restroom and stick something cold on my eyes before the others start asking questions back at the table.”
She turned away without another word and the door of one of the two bathrooms swung closed behind her. Simon stood speechless, staring after her.
“If you want to use the other one, that’s okay,” Ariel said.
He had slipped from behind the counter somehow without Simon noticing, and now stood beside Simon, his expression pleasant but somehow alert as if he was expecting Simon to offer some sort of secret password which he knew he had to be on the look-out for.
Simon stared at him. “It says ‘Out of Order’ on the door,” he said.
“Oh, that. It’s only there to keep out the uninvited.”
“You have to be invited into the restroom?” Simon said, furrowing his brow. “That’s a new one. Come to think of it, you’ve ALWAYS had a bathroom out of commission. Ever since I can remember, and I’ve been coming here for years.”
Ariel said nothing, merely smiled, and held out a folded piece of paper. Simon instinctively reached out and took it.
“What is this?” Simon said.
“Instructions,” said Ariel. “Should you choose to follow them.”
Simon unfolded the paper and glanced at it. There were only a few lines, in copperplate handwriting looking rather as though the entire thing had been penned by an old-fashioned nib pen, the kind you had to dip into an inkwell – the language, oddly old-fashioned and portentous, had the same feel of a weight of age on them. And yet the paper looked rather like it had been torn from a mass-produced notebook available in any stationery store for a few bucks, and the ink looked barely dry.
His eyebrows rose as he read.
Your life is filled with crossroads and you are free to choose one road
or another at any time. Stepping through this door narrows your choices to only
two - the choice to live a different life, or the choice to return to this one.
You make your first choice when you pass through the portal. Once you do, you will not remember the life you have left behind… until one single moment, when all memory will return. In that moment you must choose if you wish to return to your previous existence… or renounce it forever.
Remember this before you decide. Here, you change the world
around you; there, you have to change to fit the world. Both are
harder than you think. Choose wisely.
“Choose wisely,” Simon said dryly as he finished scanning the paper. “Take a step into a bathroom and flush a life down a toilet. Some choice. What is this…?”
But when he looked up again, Ariel had gone. The counter was deserted, too, but the café had started to fill up, like it always did as the evening wore on, and there was an ever-louder buzz of conversation as voices rose to be heard above the background noise. It was not the weekend, but it was technically the Eve of the End of the World, which was a sort of special occasion – and there was even a young man clutching a guitar by the throat, fussing with the connections of mike and amp by the high stool of the musician. He gave Simon a half smile as their eyes met and held briefly.
Even as he looked away again, the writer part of Simon’s brain was turning the idea over and over, dissecting it from different angles. You could choose? You could – in a manner of speaking – unchoose? Life was there to be sifted through and you could pick the bits you wanted, erase the things you would rather had never existed? That couldn’t be right – it wasn’t fair – you couldn’t unwrite something that had been written, simply unremember something that you wished to forget – but still – it glittered before him like a jewel, the temptation, the chance to start again, to be young again and to have the world unfolding in front of him before he narrowed it down by the things that he thought, that he believed, that he had allowed to happen to him and to twist him…
Simon pursed his lips, folding the paper and pushing it into his pocket.
“What the hell,” he muttered. “The world ends tomorrow morning anyway.”
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