The Midnight Library

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig starts at the end of the story.

The main character, Nora Seed, has decided to off herself. Her life is the worst possible outcome of every possible life of every alternate reality where she exists.

She really sees no point in living.  From Nora’s perspective, she has left a literal lifetime of opportunities behind in the wake of her bad choices.

As readers, we get to explore those second chances alongside Nora and, perhaps, reexamine our own life choices in the process.  That seems to be the point, anyway.

So, how does the story hold up?  Let’s take a closer look.

The Details

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Genre: Fantasy
Length: 304 pages / 75,000 words
Intended Audience: Mainstream readers, not hardcore SF/F fans.

Publisher: Viking
Year Published: 2020

Purchase Links:
Amazon: [Link]
Audible: [Link]

Reading Order

As a standalone book, The Midnight Library requires no backstory or upfront reading like what you’d see in a traditional fantasy or science fiction novel.

You can just jump right in without a ton of preamble, and Haig takes full advantage of that fresh start.

Words of Warning

If you’re looking for a traditional fantasy novel or urban fantasy series like what you’d see in the Dresden Files or the Mercy Thompson series, you can give this one a pass. This ain’t it.

Recommendation

This is great for readers who enjoy a touch of magic in an otherwise mundane story.

The fantastical element of the novel enables the main character gets to live the lives she might have lived if she’d made different choices in her past.

It’s a mechanic that allows the story to take place, but it doesn’t go beyond that basic function.

Leaving Reality Behind

Haig sets the story up quickly by telling us through conversation and light exposition just how badly Nora has screwed up her life.  As a child with unlimited potential, she had the opportunity to be so many things in her life, including a rock star or a glaciologist.

Despite her gifts, she ended up in a mundane job, trapped in the middle of a mundane life — and she hates herself for it.  All of her friends have abandoned her, and everyone who’s left is mad at her for one reason or another.

This entire premise, while a bit trite, is masterfully executed.  Haig doesn’t waste time here and doesn’t waste space digging into the details.  He’s entirely focused on the endgame and highlighting the wreck of a life that Nora has made for herself.  The rest of the details materialize later, as the story starts to unwind itself.

Nora’s death comes as no great surprise.  Haig lampshades this by starting many scenes with a countdown to Nora’s decision to kill herself.  While this does take some of the suspense out of the run-up to the death, it gives you time to focus on the exposition that filters in through the dialogue.

It’s a smart move because, as the other characters berate Nora for how she wronged them, Haig is planting the seeds for the lives Nora experiences later in the book.

This run-up to Nora’s death is probably my favorite part of the book, from a technical perspective.  But in a book that’s supposed to be about infinite possibilities, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Welcome to the Multiverse

As a character, Nora might best be described as a female Charlie Brown.  She’s a bit frumpy, pessimistic, and sullen.  All of this makes Nora hard to get along with — and that’s okay.  Haig seems to take pains to make her a little unlikable and absolutely ordinary.

When she reaches the midnight library, she has the opportunity to change all of that.  The keeper of the library, who takes the shape of Mrs. Elm, Nora’s school librarian, explains that the books in the library are the alternate reality versions of Nora where she made different decisions in her past.

Mrs. Elm says that if she can find just one life where she lives without regrets she will stay alive, and that experience will become her new life.  And, from here, we’re off to the races.  Nora gets to experience life as a rock star, an Olympic swimmer, a glaciologist, and even a few lives that she never expected with friends and best friends that she (sometimes) doesn’t even recognize.

It’s all great fun, and this cycle-in/cycle-out of various lives gives Nora a chance to experience her past from a different perspective.  She also gets to remove some of her woes from her Book of Regrets (also introduced via Mrs. Elm) by making different choices in a representative balancing of the scales.

Shirtsleeve Morality

The frustrating bit for me throughout this sequence, which is the lion’s share of the book, is Haig’s insistence that each story contain a grain of morality that needs to be dissected and discussed at length.

Each time Nora returns from an alternate reality, she and Mrs. Elm engage in a bit of self-reflection and introspection that brings closure to past regrets and allows Nora to absolve some of her own guilt.

Unfortunately, these discussions are too “on the nose” for me.  It felt like someone was trying to hammer some unsolicited moral advice into my brain.  (To be fair, I felt the same way when reading The Alchemist, and these sections of the book easily fall into that same parable-esque feel.)

As Nora searches for her perfect life, the book tries to mask these life lessons in the guise of character development, but the messaging is too abrupt and the attempt falls short.  As a result, it feels like the story is wearing its morality and drive for self-contentment on its sleeve.

Sliding Past the Better Opportunity

During Nora’s travels, she meets another traveler currently trapped between life and death.

He recognizes Nora for what she is — someone who is trying on different lives the way you and I might try on clothes — and calls her out on it.  He says that he’s met others like her and that he calls these people “sliders.”

This piqued my interest because I thought the story was about to take a hard left turn from an easygoing read to something with a touch of mystery and intrigue.

Unfortunately, the novel sticks to the straight and narrow, choosing to stay in its own lane rather than explore what would have been an interesting divergence from the main plot.

In some ways, this ruined the story for me because, in a book about infinite possibilities, it’s easy to imagine a much more gripping story told about Nora and people like her who are somehow trapped between lives and looking for a way back home.

Instead, the book wraps up with a convenient moral lesson about contentment, and Nora finds her way to her version of a perfect and happy life.

Depending on your mindset throughout the book, you may be able to figure out where she ends up long before you reach the finish line.

Final Words

Overall, this is a poignant novel with a neat and tidy finish.  It’s also an uplifting story and a comfortable read that most book clubs will love.

To its credit, this novel can make you think.  I found myself considering the choices that I’d made in the past and wondering how my life might have turned out if I’d done a few things differently.

The simplicity of the story and the elegance with which it is told is one reason why it’s a bestseller.  Everyone from the Guardian and Booklist to the New York Times has reviewed this book.  It even won a Goodreads Choice Award.

While I was hoping for a story with greater complexity and choppier waters, this novel feels like it lacks the true narrative depth that most speculative fiction readers would expect.

Instead, The Midnight Library sticks to the shallows, keeps the stakes low, and doesn’t ask much of the characters or the reader.

While it’s a great way to pass an afternoon, it’s a book that is quick to read and — I suspect — easy to forget.

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