The Midnight Library—Alternate Lives Explored

The Midnight Library

By Matt Haig

Published 2020

Read Oct 2021

The genre into which these novel falls isn’t obvious—not science fiction nor speculative fiction by this reader’s definition but certainly requiring the reader to accept an interesting premise.  In this case the premise is that when at least some people are about to die, they enter a library of alternate lives.  For the main character, Nora, the library looks like the library in her school and is maintained by Mrs. Elm, the school librarian.  For another character, the library is of DVDs in a DVD store.  Regardless, the person of interest is confronted with a large number of alternate lives that would have been (or are actually?) had they made a different decision at some point in their life.

Nora’s “root life” is miserable—she’s out of a job; her cat has just died; her parents have passed; she is estranged from her brother; and she has just broken off an engagement days before the planed wedding. She just wants to die and has taken excessive anti-depressants and washed them down with alcohol.  But she wakes up in the library with Mrs. Elm who tells her she can try out an alternative life.  If it doesn’t work out, she will automatically return to the library and can try another.  Mrs. Elm suggests Nora look at her Book of Regrets to help her decide which decision she’d like to have been different which will pick the alternate life she will start leading. 

Nora has many regrets including: dropping out of competitive swimming despite the possibility of becoming an Olympic star; quitting the band she is in with her brother just as they are close to being signed by a record company; breaking off the engagement with her fiancée; not following her dream to become an artic geoscientist.  The book follows Nora through a number of alternate lives.  An interesting aspect of this is that Nora brings only her current memories and knowledge with her so she doesn’t hold the history of becoming, for instance, a PhD geoscientist and the academic papers she wrote in this life.  So part of Nora’s immediate attention in the alternate life is to figure out what she knows and has done—easier in some cases than others.  It’s also not clear what happens to the Nora she displaces when she tries out this alternate life.  The reader just needs to accept and move on.  This reader was willing.

Some reviewers have complained that the story is told “straight line” and too simply.  That Nora’s story is just a vehicle to discuss alternate universe theory and provide some therapy to the reader.  That the story isn’t quite dark enough, Nora’s character not engaging enough, etc.  This reader reads lots of dark, complex novels, some of which tend to reach for complexity without finding the point of that complexity.  So, this reader quite appreciated the “simplicity” of this book and its interesting material, some of which is, frankly, therapeutic for readers of a certain age that wonder “what if”. While “simple” and “straight line” , it did provide this reader, at least, a number of things to consider while Nora is working through alternate lives and deciding whether or not she really wants to die—or not. 

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