I’ve always preferred consistently reading an author’s stand-alone works over actual series themselves. But after I read — and was not especially impressed by — How to Stop Time by Matt Haig, I opted to not continue looking into some of his other published works. I don’t mean to be brutal, but honestly, I have truly no clue how How to Stop Time was a bestseller and award-winning novel.
My mind changed when I constantly started hearing about the release of a revolutionary, trendy novel titled The Midnight Library, also written by Matt Haig. I was skeptical at first, but after this recommendation continuously popped up on everything — from my Goodreads account to Overdrive bookshelves to texts from my fellow bookworm friends — I had to give it a go. The Midnight Library seemed right up my alley in terms of genre and appeared to have a unique, modern plotline concept with integrated psychological depth.
Deciding I wanted to actually read the novel was the easy part. Finding it, on the other hand, was practically impossible. Like I mentioned earlier, this book was and still is extremely popular. It was sold out at pretty much every single independent bookstore I was looking to purchase from. After two months of searching, I finally got my hands on a lightly used copy of The Midnight Library from the Barbed Wire Books near my house.
The Midnight Library follows a woman named Nora Seed. There are two major things readers generally need to know about Nora Seed’s situation to understand the internal grief and absolute self-hatred expressed at the beginning of the novel. Firstly, Nora’s lost pretty much every close relationship she’s ever had in her life. Both of her biological parents have passed away. She’s convinced her brother, Joe, hates her for leaving the band she’d started with him (The Labyrinths), which he believed was destined for fame. Nora’s closest friend, Izzy, also stopped communicating with her shortly after Nora declined the invitation to join her in a move to Australia. Additionally, she recently removed herself from an emotionally toxic engagement with her ex-fiancé, Dan, a choice she still can’t decide was the correct move or simply her backing out of committing to a satisfactory future.
Secondly, Nora feels as if she’s backed out of nearly every opportunity she’s ever had, leaving behind each individual pathway she was beginning to truly excel at — teaching piano lessons to teenagers, being in a successful band with her brother and friends, becoming an Olympic swimmer, marrying Dan and settling down, following her dream of becoming a glaciologist that assists in helping stop global warming, and many more. All of these things are no longer in her life, and Nora feels this is entirely her fault.
These two major pieces of Nora’s current situation (a lack of support and interaction with people as well as confusion about personal identity) lead to her extremely suicidal and depressed mindset, annihilating any lingering joy or personal satisfaction still hiding in her. When Nora’s final source of love and affection — her cat, Voltaire (“Volts”) — is hit by a car, she decides that her life isn’t worth living. She attempts suicide by swallowing an entire bottle of medication pills and waits for the relief of death to enclose her.
But “between life and death, there is a library”, as the novel states, and Nora finds herself hovering exactly at midnight, 12:00 p.m., in a library with her previous school librarian, Mrs. Elm, who readily explains that she is surrounded by possible life paths encased in green book covers and lined up on never-ending sky-high bookshelves.
The Midnight Library, as it’s called, is simple enough. Nora has to pick a regret — no matter how big or small — that she has. Once a regret is selected, Mrs. Elm helps her find a book that holds a life Nora would have had had she made a different decision in that moment of regret. For example, Nora regrets not continuing to improve her swimming skills; the life that doesn’t include this regret brings her to experience the path of being a successful Olympic swimmer.
If Nora isn’t satisfied with the life she’s in, she is removed from that life and brought back to the Midnight Library to “erase” another regret by trying out another choice she could’ve made within her lifetime. The goal is for her to find a book — a life — that she wants to remain in. According to Mrs. Elm, if she truly wants to stay in a life, she will. Eventually, as time passes, she’ll begin to remember the past before she arrived there: people she met, places she went, and conversations she had.
There are minor spoilers from this point forward. Reader discretion is advised.
For a long while, Nora isn’t fully satisfied and doesn’t remain in any of the lives she selects, any of the regrets she’s attempting to erase. She studies glaciers and comes face-to-face with polar bears only to realize she isn’t satisfied having a job she didn’t work for; she marries Dan and opens up a pub in the countryside only to find out that she hates owning a pub, and Dan is even more of an awful human being that she initially thought; she reconnects with her brother and follows the path of international fame as the lead singer of The Labyrinths only to recognize that loss seems to follow her everywhere she goes; she even meets another traveler (Hugo Lefèvre) hovering halfway between life and death and visiting his own alternate paths.
Exhausted, Nora finally wishes for the simplest future she can think of: going on a coffee date with a friendly surgeon named Ash when he’d previously asked her. Upon entering this life, she’s convinced that it’s the one she’ll remain in forever. Nora has everything from a sweet and playful family dog to a daughter she adores to a husband who wholeheartedly supports her love of philosophy as she writes a book about Henry David Thoreau. But eventually, Nora recognizes that though she loves this seemingly picture-perfect life, there are little things that she cared for in her root life that are now lost. Her old workplace, a music shop called String Theory, is shut down. Her sole piano student, Leo, ends up getting in trouble all around town and mixing in with the wrong crowd without his piano lessons.
Returning to the Midnight Library, Nora recognizes that she has built up the will to live. This, of course, means that the library will no longer exist. As the whole space within her mind begins to deteriorate, Nora returns to her root life, where her body is recovered from the suicide attempt. After being hospitalized and slowly nursed back to full health, she finds herself reaching out to her brother and starting up her piano lessons again — Nora Seed finally recognizes that the life she’s in isn’t worth giving up on if she’s willing to put in the effort to make her environment a more fulfilling space for herself.
It isn’t our regrets that define us, it is what we learn from those regrets and the ways we utilize those lessons in our present lives.
The Bibliofile summarizes the true point of the storyline perfectly, saying, “Nora’s journey of self-discovery results in a life-affirming and reflective story about the choices we make, the paths we’ve chosen, and each of our places in this world.”
This sounds like a wonderful novel, and in many ways, it is. I loved the way Matt Haig intricately describes the experiences and feelings of Nora Seed as she goes from life to life. As a reader, you can watch every aspect of Nora’s confidence in herself and her root life opportunities as they take shape within her. I also greatly enjoyed reading about the concept of alternate realities based on the choices that we make, and slowly accepting that our current reality is the best for us to remain in. It was unique and modern in a way that I had yet to read.
Unfortunately, there were a few issues I had with the novel as well. There was a certain lack of depth that can truly only be understood after one fully reads the book. Though Matt Haig includes a lot of emotional episodes that appear really heartfelt on paper, I didn’t necessarily always connect with the mentalities that were being described. I’m not sure if that was due to a lack of established connection between Nora Seed and the reader or because of another flaw. It’s often awkward to read a book and not be fully enveloped in every twist and turn. For me, The Midnight Library felt a little disconnected in that sense.
Though major and minor character development was extremely well done, and I could truly see the transformation of Nora Seed, it was difficult for me to connect to certain feelings that were being described which, in turn, created a disconnected feeling as a reader.
I would definitely recommend The Midnight Library to anyone interested in this psychological concept and genre but doesn’t want a read that provokes earth-shattering realizations. In various ways, it was significantly better than How to Stop Time, but it still wasn’t as revolutionary as many claim it to be.
I would give The Midnight Library by Matt Haig a solid 4/5 star rating.