Note: There are spoilers in this review.
TW: This blog mentions suicidal ideation and attempted suicide.
Imagine visiting The Midnight Library filled with infinite possibilities based on choices you did not make and paths you did not take. This is where 35-year-old Nora Seed finds herself after she decides to end her life. In between life and death lies The Midnight Library where the librarian tells her she can explore all the possible versions of her life.
It’s a tempting offer. One that any person with regret will happily take. But, as always, when it comes to an offer that is too good to be true, there is always a catch.
Although the concept of parallel universes has been explored multiple times in books and movies, this particular journey is well worth taking. In an age of extreme social comparison, socio-political turmoil, and pandemic-level anxiety, Matt Haig managed to bring us this moment of illumination, reminding us why our existence, in all its messy glory, is worth fighting for.
BOOK I: One reads
It started with regrets.
When we first meet Nora, she has backed herself up in a corner with all sorts of regrets, from her cat to her DOA musical career to her estranged family. The Book of Regrets is in fact the first book the librarian gives Nora.
She reads about all the choices and decisions she wishes she can undo or remake which could make her life better. What if she didn’t quit the band? What if she married Dan? What if she went to Australia? What if she was a better pet parent?
It is easy to sympathize with Nora, especially when we confront our own regrets. When questions of “What if” lead to statements of “I should/could have,” it’s a slippery slope to rock bottom.
It is also easy to judge Nora given her many talents and opportunities that came her way. Do you perhaps agree with Ravi that her problem is “life fright”?
BOOK II: Road seen
Then came possibility.
After reading about her regrets, Nora starts exploring her whatifs. In one possibility, she is an Olympian; in another, a dog walker; a musician, a glaciologist, a bar owner, a vineyard owner, and so many other iterations. Since this is technically YA, the author keeps it PG and veers away from the grittier, more sinister possibilities that life could take.
The introduction of Hugo Lefèvre is when the book shifts from fantasy to the fantastic. Hugo calls himself, and others like him, a slider. He’s been doing it a long time and is content with the slivers of life he gets as he slides from one possibility to another. At one point, he was an astronaut! It is fantastical, in this way, because the author fully flexes the breadth of the library.
This book is not about probability, but possibility.
It almost seems like a thought experiment on human potential. It is not overly concerned with factors like class, race, social structures, etc, that could limit an individual’s life path. Instead, the author keeps the options wide open.
In all these different versions, there’s always something missing, something off—a failing relationship, loss of a loved one, a yearning for more—and she finds herself back in the library to explore another possibility.
Hugos exist in reality—people who can easily reinvent themselves endlessly and never settle. Nora, we find out, is not a Hugo. And when the fog of possibility clears, she finally sees the path ahead.
BOOK III: One dares
In the final act, Nora opens the book of reality. The one she needs to write herself.
It is tempting to skim through all of life’s possibilities, but you will lose out on the details. In the grand scheme of things, the parts you skim over may be the most meaningful parts. Nora learns this lesson through her wanderings.
While living the life of another Nora, she was given the chance to view her root life from a different perspective, and she sees the tiny moments of grace, choices she didn’t even think about, that have made a difference. All those tiny threads of meaning invisible to her in her down-and-out state.
We can sometimes become myopic when viewing our own life. We forget that life is complex and there are so many moving parts — other people’s choices and decisions — that affect our own. And because we never really live apart from society, no matter how isolated we think we are, there are unseen things that are creating flutters in the ether.
EPILOGUE: Dear ones
The book starts with regrets and ends with hope.
The possibilities are infinite, but our time is finite. As the author wrote, we can’t do everything and be everything, and that’s okay. We really only need one life because we already contain multitudes.
We can either dwell in regrets, crippled by possibilities, or we can unstuck ourselves and just live; and in living, the impossible can happen. But we cannot get there, if we don’t take stock of the now.
Nora Seed is an anagram for reasoned. At The Midnight Library one reads for the road to be seen, and then finally, one dares to live.
A pawn is never just a pawn. A pawn is a queen-in-waiting. All you need to do is find a way to keep moving forward. — Matt Haig, The Midnight LibraryTweet
We spend so much time wishing our lives were different, comparing ourselves to other people and to other versions of ourselves, when really most lives contain degrees of good and degrees of bad.
It was interesting, she mused to herself, how life sometimes simply gave you a whole new perspective by waiting around long enough for you to see it.
It is quite a revelation to discover that the place you wanted to escape to is the exact same place you escaped from. That the prison wasn’t the place, but the perspective. — Matt Haig, The Midnight LibraryTweet