The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (2020)
Nora Seed’s life was on a downhill trajectory. She was being professionally treated for “situational depression,” but it wasn’t really helping. She lost her job and her only paying piano student, so had no income. Her best friend was 10,000 miles away in Australia. Her brother, upset over her decision to quit their band on the verge of success, hadn’t visited her in two years. Their parents were dead. She was in her mid-thirties, never married, had no children, and no one needed her except her cat.
Then her cat died.
She left a suicide note saying in part:
“I had all the chances to make something of my life, and I blew every one of them. Through my own carelessness and misfortune, the world has retreated from me, and so now it makes perfect sense that I should retreat from the world.
If I felt it was possible to stay, I would. But I don’t. And so I can’t. I make life worse for people.” [p. 23]
End of story, right? Well…no. In fact, it was just the beginning.
Nora woke to find herself in the Midnight Library, a library like no other. There were endless rows of endless volumes that were ALL ABOUT HER, as the librarian explained. Mrs. Elm had been her actual school librarian years ago; a woman with whom she’d spent many hours playing chess and whom Nora liked and trusted.
Mrs. Elm explained:
‘”Between life and death there is a library….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?”’ [p. 29]
Nora had many regrets, probably more than most people. Her “Book of Regrets” was a long one.
A year ago, she had decided not to marry Dan two days before the wedding. Nora had doubts that the decision had been a good one, so chose to slide into that life first. He had achieved his dream of owning his own pub, and they were married. However, he was not happy, and in fact had cheated on Nora with another woman. Nora didn’t like this Dan, which verified that she’d made the right decision. She returned to the Library. (Returning to the Library involved simply disappearing from that life. I wondered how the people left behind reacted to or explained that.)
Next Nora decided to visit her best friend Izzy in Australia, only to find that Izzy had died in a car crash in that life. Filled with grief at the loss, she returned to the Library.
At that point, Nora felt the need for a more positive experience, so she asked for a life of success. As a teenager, she’d been an accomplished swimmer. Her father’s own sports career had been cut short after an injury, and he pushed her train for the Olympics. Their relationship flagged when Nora decided she didn’t want that.
In this life, she had pursued swimming and won medals in two Olympics, then worked for the BBC covering swimming events. She also participated in speaking engagements, which was the point at which she “slid” into that life. Imagine trying to speak to an audience when you have no idea what your speech is about! (As the reader, I thought the hardest part of this process was trying to pick up the information one needed to assume someone’s identity on the spot.)
Nora discovered that she had won her father’s approval in this life, and he was active in HER career. However, his behavior resulted in his divorcing her mother and developing a drinking problem. Nora lost the need for his approval.
As a child, Nora thought of having a career as a glaciologist. One life of adventure took her to a glacier with a group of scientists. She was assigned the spotter position, which entailed warning them of a polar bear and trying to scare it off. She was successful, and the very real threat of being attacked and eaten by a polar bear shocked her into realizing she wanted to live. She also realized her parents had been unhappy people and forgave them in this life. It was evident that their unhappiness affected her life.
Back at the Library, she realized being a glaciologist wasn’t right for her, either, so she chose to continue the music career she had started with her brother’s band and left on the verge of their success. In reality the band dissolved when she left, but in this life, she stayed as their fame grew and was part of the reason for it. While her brother was much happier, the fame part of this life was not right for Nora in spite of her musical creativity.
Exploring these lives, she was able to resolve regrets that burdened her life enough to bring it to a halt. Any one of those lives had been possible, but she never followed through on them, whether by intuition or circumstance. Once she knew what WASN’T right for her, that left the question of what WAS right? She embarked on a search, dipping into a large number of lives, only to find none that fit until….
She woke to find herself married to Ash, her surgeon neighbor in real life, with daughter. She was a mother! In real life Ash had alerted her to her cat’s death and kindly helped bury him. He had also expressed interest in her once when she was with Dan. This was the life that suited her best so far, the one she stayed in the longest, the one that brought the Library crashing down.
She did not die and in fact found herself back in her real life. What happens next? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
In the book, Hugo in the glaciologist life is a veteran of “sliding” into various lives. He’d already tried hundreds. He explains the science behind the process to Nora in the chapter “Life and Death and the Quantum Brain Function.”
‘”The many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics suggests there are an infinite number of divergent parallel universes. Every moment of your life you enter a new universe. With every decision you make.”’ [p. 146]
Hugo goes on to explain that there is a singular moment when we are both alive and dead and sometimes “may be every quantum possibility that exists in line with the universal wave function.” [p. 147]
I won’t delve further into the scientific theory, but just say that interested readers can follow it if they wish, or not. This book can be thoroughly enjoyed and meaningful without knowing anything about the science on which it may be based.
The Midnight Library has been on the “New York Times” bestseller list for 20 weeks and is still #5. It’s among the best books I’ve read this year. It’s probably best enjoyed by older readers who may have some regrets in their own lives to think differently about and resolve. This is a book many of us will want to re-read from time to time, to think about paths taken and NOT taken.
This book will be available at the Grover Beach Community Library.