The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Published by Viking Adult
Publication date: August 13, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Fantasy, Fiction
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Nora Seed is a very unhappy woman. At 35 she feels her life is mainly filled with regrets, that the future holds no hope, and that she contributes nothing to the world. When her beloved cat dies, it’s the last straw. She decides to kill herself with a drug overdose. What happens next is best explained by the book itself:
“Between life and death there is a library”, she said. “And within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be different if you had made other choices…Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”
The speaker is Mrs. Elm, Nora’s high school librarian and a woman she cared for deeply. The Midnight Library is a fantasy about getting to choose again in the hopes of finding the perfect life. It’s Nora’s turn.
This is a fairly substantial premise for a novel. Given that I read it in December I couldn’t help but be reminded of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life and George Bailey. The difference here is that while Nora has a massive book of Regrets, The Midnight Library is more about her and not her impact on others. Instead, author Matt Haig uses the string theory of quantum physics to posit that even as we are living one life right now, there are multiple alternative versions of our life going on around us. Nora is given the chance to change her choices in the hopes of finding the life she believes she is meant to live.
Haig explores a number of existential concepts in The Midnight Library. The first being the meaning of life. Nora runs through and quickly discards a traditional marriage, fame, and then success, until she lands on happiness. This life tugs at her, but even it is not enough to hold her in place. The second concept at play is consequences. For each thing Nora gains in one life, she is likely to lose something else. If she chose differently, her father died young. Or her mother. Or she lived in Antarctica. Endless permutations and changing results, which are the heart of the novel. Mrs. Elm is the kindly guide, explaining advanced philosophical concepts to beginner Nora. She’s the most intriguing character in the book.
I enjoyed The Midnight Library. To think there is an endless library out there is my concept of nirvana! I know others have found it to be outstanding and uplifting, but it didn’t achieve those heights for me. One shallow reason is that Haig’s writing feels stilted. He’s British and instead of using “sat”, he uses “had sat”. It’s like snagging a fingernail on fabric—it drew my attention away from the flow of the words to puzzle over grammar. Beyond that, while I find the premise of the novel interesting, it read like a more moralistic version of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Many lives being lived, except no time passes in Nora’s library. For light holiday reading, The Midnight Library works.
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