Title: The Midnight Library
Author: Matt Haig
Nora is 35 years old. She has no stable relationship, no stable job, and she feels like she has wasted all the opportunities life has offered her in the past. She will never know what could have happened if she had made different choices, and after a really bad day, she decides she has had enough.
That’s how she finds herself in the Midnight Library, a huge building where time doesn’t flow and all the books on the shelves are other lives that she could have lived, if only she had acted differently. She can try on each and any of them, if she wants, and if she finds one that satisfies her on every account, she can just keep living it instead of her original life. But is any of them really going to be the perfect one?
A closer look
Oh boy, where do I even start with this one?
This was supposed to be a great read. It was supposed to be unputdownable, profound, and uplifting. It has a great premise, after all, and an average rating of 4,27 on Goodreads at the time of writing this. What could go wrong?
As it happens, a lot of stuff. The writing was dry and choppy, the protagonist annoying, and the message was so obvious and on the nose as to be cartoonish. Some of the scenes were absolutely ridiculous, the characters were flat, the dialogue was unrealistic when not downright cringey, and I called the ending when I was less than a third of the way through. I also don’t think it was a good ending.
All in all, this was a big no for me, but let me try to explain what went wrong with this book.
In the span of a day, everything that could possibly go wrong in Nora’s life does: her best friend doesn’t answer her texts, her brother avoids her, she loses her main job and her part-time job, a person she hasn’t seen in twenty years asks her about her lack of success, and her cat dies. Seriously. See where that cartoonish I was talking about comes from? And I didn’t even go through the whole list.
That’s when Nora decides to commit suicide by swallowing way too many of her antidepressants. She wakes up in the Midnight Library, a place between life and death where she’s given the possibility of “trying on” different lives, the ones she could have lived if she had made different choices in the past.
That’s where the bulk of the novel starts, which is Nora jumping from life to life, exploring her regrets and then trying different options until she finds one that feels right. But wait, I’m not done talking about Nora yet.
During the first day we spend with her, she goes through most of her biggest regrets and analyses what she thinks went wrong with her life, and a picture starts to form: she had plenty of really great opportunities, but she threw them all away, one by one, until she found herself in her current situation. And when I say opportunities, I don’t mean that she had hobbies or vague ideas of things she liked and didn’t pursue them: I mean that she had potential, which makes a lot of difference. She didn’t just like swimming, she had already won a few competitions. She didn’t just like music, she had taught herself the keyboard and had started writing songs. She didn’t have a relationship that didn’t go well, she just decided to step back two days before the wedding.
It’s annoying to see how much she could have done, and how little she did. I understand this is the point of the story (and we’ll get back to it), but it’s too much to feel realistic or relatable. She didn’t even have to try too hard to be good at something, but she didn’t try at all, and that’s the only reason of all her “failings”. Instead of caring for Nora or feeling sorry for her, I was angry at her because she was a whiny idiot.
The other characters in the story are there only to fulfil a purpose – namely, pointing out how much of a failure Nora is, or banging the reader on the head with deep meaning – and that’s pretty much it. None of them has a personality, or any real impact on Nora as a person. They aren’t even likeable. She wants them in her life, because… I don’t know, a living brother/friend/parent means that she doesn’t have to feel bad about his death, or about saying something hurtful to him before he died. I guess.
And now let’s talk about the library itself, the best part – and the most underdeveloped – of the book. The idea is nothing groundbreaking, but it still has a huge appeal for me. Having the chance to try all the lives that could be, if only I did A instead of B? I would love that.
Nora meets the librarian and is instructed on how everything works. It’s not totally clear what are the requirements to get there, why some things happen, or even if it’s real or all in Nora’s mind. I guess it doesn’t impact the story that much, but I would have liked to know.
Anyway, the librarian hands Nora the book of regrets, a collection of all the little and big things she wish she had, or had not, done, and then gives her the possibility of undoing them, one at a time, and see what the consequences would be. She could find the life she has always dreamed of, or just confirmation that suicide was the best course of action.
She then begins to try on these lives, and that’s when the real fun starts. No, I don’t mean it in an entirely positive way.
This part of the book was kind of predictable, as we already know what Nora’s biggest regrets are, so it’s easy to guess what she will choose. After the first life, I started trying to guess what would go wrong in each one of them, and let me tell you, it was more interesting than reading the book itself. For fun’s sake – and because I really want to talk about it – I will sum up a couple of the first lives she tries. There will be spoilers for the first quarter of the book, give or take, so if you don’t want to know anything just skip to end of the next section.
The first life Nora decides to try is the one where she married her boyfriend Dan and they opened a pub in the English countryside. By the time he appears and says ten words to her, she has already started listing all of his flaws and problematic aspects. In literally one page, we know that she hates how he laughs, he resents her brilliance, he’s a drunk, he pushed her to leave her brother’s band and didn’t appreciate her songwriting, and he also cheated on her. I was shocked. I was expecting to find some bad aspect to this life – no point in another two hundred pages otherwise – but not so much in so little time. Instead of getting an exploration of how it was an unsuitable relationship for Nora, we get a farce of what that life could have been.
The next one is the life in which she didn’t let out the cat the night before, so no car could run him over and he would still be alive. But the cat is dead anyway because he had some heart disease, so the only thing that changes is that she doesn’t feel responsible for his death anymore. Sounds like a joke, right?
Same thing happens when she decides to try the life in which she went to live in Australia with her best friend, and she finds out that her friend died in a car accident when she was going to Nora’s birthday.
END OF SPOILERS
The last lives she tried were at least a little bit more varied and interesting, as Nora diverged from her biggest regrets and tried out different things. Still, it all felt kind of pointless at some point. She was not getting any real insight into herself or her own life, but just hopping around aimlessly.
The message was clearly that her actual life was not so bad after all, but it started to leave a bad taste in my mouth after a while. It felt like the book was justifying the fact that she hadn’t done anything with her life, because if she had, bad things could have happened to the people she loves. Her mother could die alone, or her brother could overdose, or her father could divorce her mother and make himself a new life, and so on for every other person.
The problem is, none of these things should have impacted her that much, because they were other people’s choices. So why should she sacrifice a life of success and personal fulfilment because other people chose to do things differently, as if that was her fault?
And the ending. I hated the ending. Not only was it predictable, but some things happened that, if Nora had waited 24 hours instead of rushing to commit suicide, would have prevented the whole story from taking place. And they happened not because Nora was making an effort of any kind; they would have happened anyway whether she decided to commit suicide or not, so what’s the message here? If you don’t like things in your life, just wait and do nothing, they will get better by themselves? I’m still fuming.
This book could have been a beautiful exploration of what it means to be alive and make choices, of the weight of regrets and lost opportunities, and of the little things that make it worthwhile all the same. Instead it was superficial, patronising, and full of commonplace “wisdom”.
I wouldn’t personally recommend it, but I’m clearly in the minority here, so what do I know? As with everything else, if it sounds interesting to you then give it a go. Just let me know what you think about it after!