TL:DR – Young adult novel containing two short stories about connections and the changes we go through during our teenage years.
Summary (warning: spoiler)
The first short story titled ‘Midnights’ is about Margaret (nicknamed ‘Mags’) and Noel who are best friends. He remembers their first meeting on New Year’s Eve in 2011 where she saved his life. She doesn’t quite remember it that way, but every New Year’s Eve since then, Noel has tried to dance with Mags in celebration of this “life-saving event” before the final countdown to the New Year. And every year, Mags has politely declined and instead watched, from afar, Noel end up dancing with some other girl and kissing her when the clock strikes midnight.
On New Year’s Eve in 2014, Mags and Noel reunite after attending colleges in different states and not seeing each other for months. Noel finally convinces her to dance with him, but as it draws close to midnight, he gets whisked away to dance with another girl. Will this be another New Year’s Eve with the same outcome?
The second short story titled ‘Kindred Spirits’ is about a teenage girl named Elena; a die-hard fan of Star Wars who lines up for the midnight premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Episode VII) four days before it opens. She had expected a huge line of die-hard fans ready to do a week long celebration of Star Wars before the midnight screening. Instead, she meets only Troy and Gabe. Two others who are crazy enough to camp outside the theatre during the cold, winter nights.
With an over-protective mother checking up on her several times each day, Elena is determined to do this. Her step towards independence and making her own decisions, regardless of how foolish they may turn out to be. Will she make it through the four days sleeping outside on the hard ground? And more importantly how will she go to the toilet if she needs to pee at night?
Rowell manages to balance sentimentality and sweetness in a way that isn’t overly romanticised, so it will appeal to young readers while also being a nostalgia trip for older ones.
In ‘Midnights’, she is able to capture the angst and wanting that comes from two friends attracted to each other but somewhat stuck in the friends zone. Neither quite being brave enough to walk out on a limb to see if their friendship can be something more. Told from the perspective of Mags, you can understand her hesitation when Noel appears to be carefree with his affection and is happy to share a New Year’s kiss with any girl that raises her eyebrows at him.
Mags is never quite sure whether Noel feels anything more than friendship towards her. Their first New Year’s Eve encounter revolving around Noel revealing to her that he has a severe allergy to tree nuts (and shellfish and strawberries…) as he asks her whether the cracker she’s holding with pesto and cream cheese has pine nuts in it. An amusing dialogue ensues where Mags successfully stops Noel from eating the cracker, pesto and cream cheese combo and thus ‘saving his life’ for another year.
Two subsequent New Year’s Eve parties later and Mags and Noel are friends at the hip, but his urging of her to dance with him before the clock strikes twelve always fails. Mind you, we know Noel wants to share his New Year’s kiss with Mags but Mags never gets up onto the dance floor with him, so he ends up snogging someone else. In truth, Noel sends out all the signals but Mags doesn’t act on them so one could argue she has only herself to blame for being stuck in the friends zone.
When the fourth New Year’s Eve rolls around and Mags finally relents and has a slow dance with Noel, he pretty much confesses he can’t live without her, and you think finally they will kiss. Instead, another girl grabs Noel away and Mags walks out of the house party not being able to bear witnessing Noel kissing another girl. When the countdown to midnight happens, Noel appears outside looking for her and viola Noel makes it clear that the only girl he wants to kiss is her.
Rowell does a clever bit of plot twisting at this point. When Noel and Mags kiss, Mags has totally forgotten that she has been eating Chex mix which contains cashews. Mags saves Noel again by getting Benadryl from his car to prevent him from swelling up like a balloon and being covered in hives. Thus, they live happily allergy-free ever after.
In ‘Kindred Spirits’, the story of Elena looking to camp out for the opening of Episode VII of Star Wars is surprisingly funny and heart warming. Rowell is cognisant of the fact that in 2015 when the sequel came out, people could just buy tickets online and guarantee themselves a seat. But this isn’t the point for Elena. She wants to line up with other die-hard fans and party for a week on all things Star Wars related. And she thinks there’ll be a massive gathering based on social media posts. However, what she discovers is that the line is compromised of only two other people.
Instead of a party, it feels like stranger danger and the scenes where Elena argues with her mother who keeps periodically checking up on her is very funny.
Troy and Gabe turn out to be Star Wars geeks and nothing more predatory and Elena slowly gets to know both of them.
What is clever about the story is that Gabe turns out to be Elena’s classmate, but because he is shy, quiet and keeps to himself and she has her own group of friends, she has never noticed him. Here we have a showing of different perspectives. Elena feels genuinely bad that she didn’t recognise Gabe, but Gabe says that’s fine because he wouldn’t expect her to notice him since she’s part of her own clique.
This raises Elena’s hackles who tries to convince Gabe that she’s just a nerd, but Gabe sees her as one of the ‘popular’ girls. The ensuing debate manages to change both their perspectives and the assumptions they made about the other.
Plus Gabe helps Elena survive the nights by finding a way for her to pee in a cup behind a dumpster while he hums loudly ‘The Imperial March’ from Star Wars. That’s the type of embarrassing experience that makes two people bond whether they want to or not.
The ending is quite funny and another clever twist by Rowell. When the midnight premiere finally arrives, Gabe and Elena are so excited, and they get prime seats being at the head of the line. As they sit together in the cinema, they comment on how wonderful their seats are. So warm and comfy and as the opening crawl begins, they end up… falling asleep.
When they wake, to their horror, they’ve slept through the whole thing, but all’s well that ends well because Gabe has bought extra tickets for a second screening ahead of time (yep, he’s a diehard fan alright) and ends up inviting Elena to go see it.
Overall, I preferred ‘Kindred Spirits’ over ‘Midnights’ only in that there was more humour and the scenes with the mother trying to convince her daughter, Elena, to come home were believable and comic.
Rowell does use some interesting turns of phrase in her writing. Some works better than others. Specifically in ‘Midnights’ she writes, ‘he smelled warm’ and then later writes, ‘he smelled like skin’.
I’m all for a good synaesthesia. For example, ‘a gravelly voice’, or ‘the warm colours of a painting’, or ‘that’s the smell of victory’.
But I’m not sure that ‘he smelled like skin’ works, especially given it is meant to be an intimate moment between Mags and Noel. Still, young adult readers will likely gloss over this.
The art of a short story is a tricky process, and Rainbow Rowell does an admirable job in capturing the essence of that period in your life when insecurities and awkwardness can be high. Sentimental without being overly sweet, Almost Midnight is an enjoyable enough read that will appeal to young readers and will have older ones walking down memory lane.
3 out of 5