front cover of the book The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Written by: Matt Haig
Publisher: Viking/Penguin Random House, 2020
Total pages: 288 print pages (hardcover)
Genre: Out of the Bottle

Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library was one of my favorite reads of the past year. I know I’m not alone in this because it was a New York Times bestseller, a No. 1 Sunday Times bestseller, and a “Good Morning America” Book Club Pick. It has nearly 40,000 five-star reviews on Amazon to date (it’s been on the Amazon Charts for 22+ weeks and was their Best Book of October, too), and it even won the 2020 Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction.

But I’ve been indifferent to literary accolades and mega-selling titles before. Not so with this novel. I first read it about seven months ago and haven’t stopped recommending it since… to pretty much anyone who’ll listen to me… and with a zealousness approaching that of Flo the Progressive Lady with her TV insurance ads. For so many reasons, not the least of which is the accessible storytelling style, making it a fast read for teens and adults alike and providing a jumping off point for deeper discussions, I truly appreciated this book.

Check out the official description below:

“Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?

In The Midnight Library, Matt Haig’s enchanting new novel, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.

The Washington Post called The Midnight Library: “A feel-good book guaranteed to lift your spirits.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Here’s my take on Blake Snyder’s beats for this absorbing and hopeful novel about life, love, and the endless human search for happiness—a search that seems to begin and end with an understanding of one’s personal perspective.

Opening Image (pages 1 – 2): Nineteen years before Nora Seed decided to die, she was just a kid in the small English town of Bedford playing chess in the school library with Mrs. Elm, the kindly and encouraging librarian. It was on that day that a phone call changed Nora’s life with news of a family tragedy: the death of her father.

Set-Up (pages 3 – 23): Nearly two decades later, at age 35, Nora finds out from an acquaintance—a handsome young surgeon named Ash—that her beloved cat has been hit by a car. Taking care of her cat was one of the few things that made Nora feel needed. She’s consequently late to work the next day and her boss, in a tough-love effort to help her get unstuck in her life, fires her. She’s been working at this little music shop for 12 years and is stagnant. She was a champion swimmer in her teens (before she quit, breaking her ambitious dad’s heart), earned a degree in philosophy, had an ex-fiancé named Dan, and even played in a rock band for a while with her brother Joe, who’s been avoiding her.

However, after the death of her mom a dozen years before, her life has been on pause. She misses her best friend Izzy, who now lives halfway across the world in Australia. Her one piano student is considering dropping out of lessons with her. Even the small sense of purpose she felt in helping deliver her elderly neighbor’s prescription is denied to her when someone else takes on the task. In Nora’s opinion, no one needs her anymore.

Theme Stated (pages 13 – 18): Nora runs into Ravi, who was her brother’s best friend and their former bandmate. He’s still mad about her quitting their band because they were on the verge of signing a big record deal. She claims she’d been having panic attacks and that her ex-fiancé didn’t want her to keep performing, but Ravi disagrees. “I don’t think your problem was stage fright. Or wedding fright. I think your problem was life fright.” Also, paralleling this comment, Nora recalls a quote from her favorite philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you imagined.” But it doesn’t seem possible to Nora that she can do this.

Catalyst (pages 21 – 23): Nora decides she doesn’t want to reach tomorrow. That now is “a very good time to die.” She writes a letter to “Dear Whoever” and swallows a bottle of pills.

Debate (pages 24 – 33): It’s midnight, but the clock is not moving forward. Nora is perplexed by this, particularly when she finds herself in a massive library, where the shelves of books (their covers all varying shades of green) seemingly go on forever. She pulls out one of the books, but a voice behind her tells her to be careful. The voice belongs to Mrs. Elm—or someone who bears a striking resemblance to the old librarian from her school days. Nora asks if she’s in the afterlife, but the librarian says, “Not exactly,” and she goes on to explain that “between life and death there is a library… Every book provides a chance to choose another life you could have lived.” Nora says that she wants to die, but the librarian explains that death doesn’t work this way. Death will come to Nora, not the other way around.

Mrs. Elm instructs Nora that she now has to decide how she wants to live. She’ll need to carefully choose which of the many books/life possibilities she wants to open up and experience. Each book is a portal to an alternate version of her life—all of which would begin at that very moment (midnight in the present day)—and would be based on other choices she’d made over the past 35 years. Which would she explore first? Which of her parallel lives did she want to enter now, to see what could have been? There’s only one book that’s different. It has a grey cover rather than a green one, and it’s called The Book of Regrets.

Break into Two (pages 34 – 35): The Book of Regrets is, according to the librarian, the source of all Nora’s problems, and the solutions to them, too. It lists every single regret she’s ever had in her life, from very minor ones, like choosing to skip exercising one day, to major ones, like neglecting to tell her dad she loved him before he died or breaking up with Dan two days before their wedding.

B Story (pages 36 – 41): Nora has a LOT of regrets. The sheer number weigh on her. The librarian, however, talks her through the process of selecting a regret and the subsequent green-covered book featuring that unlived life path. The A Story is all about Nora’s present-day life and the reasons she chose to overdose. By contrast, the B Story is a buffet of alternate choices, which feature an array of life paths that differ from her current one to varying degrees. It’s somewhat like dating—each life alternative is an example of a different relationship Nora has, not only with the world but, also, with herself.

Fun and Games (pages 42 – 117): The promise of the premise. Nora begins to select her deepest regrets and explore them, starting with the first one: “I wish I hadn’t left Dan.” She’s transported to her life with him, right now, had she not broken their engagement a couple of years earlier. They’re currently married. They own this little pub in the Oxfordshire countryside, just as they’d once planned to do. Maybe, Nora muses, this would have been the perfect life for her after all. Only, it turns out it isn’t. There are details about Dan and her relationship with him that she hadn’t expected. Profound disappointments in his character that she hadn’t consciously realized were a possibility when they were together. Her own body feels different to her, too. Stronger and healthier, perhaps, but definitely more tense.

Nora goes back to the library to choose other lives to experience, hoping to find the one where everything feels happiest and most natural to her. Where there are the fewest overall losses. She tries out the life where she’d kept her cat indoors, so it wouldn’t end up dead in the street. The life where she joins her BFF Izzy in moving together to Australia. The life where she didn’t quit swimming and went on to be an Olympic champion, just like her dad had wanted. In all of these, there are unexpected realizations, unanticipated consequences, and unsettling emotions. And in every one of them, her disappointment in the alternate life causes her to return to the Midnight Library. She comes to understand from Mrs. Elm that she “can choose choices but not outcomes.” The librarian also says wisely, in what I consider to be further themes of the book, “The only way to learn is to live,” and “Never underestimate the big importance of small things.”

Midpoint (pages 118 – 152): False victory. In her exploration of a parallel life as a glaciologist, she’s tasked with being a spotter during an Arctic excursion. She’s terrified when she sees a real polar bear coming close to her, ready to attack, and she realizes immediately and emphatically that she doesn’t want to die. During this same life, she meets a fellow scientist named Hugo, a man who privately shares with her some stunning news: He’s also bouncing between potential lives, just like Nora. (Although his mental construct of the “in between” is a video store rather than a library.) Finally there’s someone who understands what she’s been experiencing! They talk about this bizarre opportunity that’s been given to them—to exist for a while between life and death and test out alternate paths—and then Nora kisses him.

Bad Guys Close In (pages 153 – 180): It turns out that Hugo had already experienced nearly 300 alternate lives, and in some of them, he and Nora were even married. But during this particular parallel life, a longer relationship wasn’t going to happen. Nora, reminded of something Camus said, quotes his words to herself: “I may have not been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didn’t.”

She returns to the Midnight Library and quizzes the Mrs. Elm lookalike about whether or not the librarian is actually God, and if this is all just some weird mechanism in Nora’s mind—a way to simplify the complicated quantum wave function that must be at play. The librarian doesn’t give her any definitive answers, but she advises Nora to choose her next life selection carefully because the Midnight Library won’t stay standing forever. If time starts to move again outside of the library, the building will be destroyed, and Nora won’t have any other alternate-life choices left.

Since she no longer wishes to die, she tries to pick a life where she believes she might have the best shot at being happy—as the lead singer/songwriter in the band she was once in with her brother Joe and his buddy Ravi—only now that band is wildly famous. With huge fame, of course, comes huge problems. Like how she had to issue a restraining order against Dan in this life because he broke into her house. How her old manager had been ripping her off. How she’s the ex-girlfriend of her formerly favorite A-list movie star—who comes across to her now as a total bonehead.

“You can have everything and feel nothing,” her rock-idol self had recently tweeted. Nora is starting to fully understand that. She realizes there’s no way of life that can immunize a person against sadness. That it’s intrinsically tied to happiness, and one state wouldn’t exist without the other.

All Is Lost (pages 181 – 185): Whiff of death. This band, which had once been her brother’s big dream, was a far worse alternative life than Nora could have imagined. She discovers that two years ago, Joe had overdosed on drugs and was now dead.

Dark Night of the Soul (pages 185 – 196): Up until now, every life Nora chose had been someone else’s dream. This time, though, she’s determined to choose an alternate life that’s quieter. One that is about her own hopes and dreams instead of any other person’s desires. She decides she wants “a gentle life.”

Break into Three (page 197): Upon this request, Mrs. Elm gives Nora a new green book to open, which she does. Nora slips more easily into this new and gentle life of working with animals at a shelter.

Finale (pages 197 – 286): This parallel life gives Nora the feeling that here, in the relative simplicity of this world, she’s at peace with herself. She walks dogs, cares for the animals, and is much more at ease within her mind and spirit. She finds herself involved with a nice man named Dylan and has to figure out their relationship. It turns out that he’s her boyfriend and he is truly as endearing and sweet as he seems, much like a beloved puppy.

And yet, she’s still not content. She tries another world where she’s married to a Mexican-American man and owns a California vineyard with him. He’s a good man and their life is a pleasant one, but she’s still dissatisfied. It’s far too easy to fake everything when, it appears, no one is really paying attention. At the Midnight Library, Mrs. Elm helps her find many, many more lives to sample.

Something new happens here for Nora. The more alternate lives she experiences, the more her imagination broadens. She’s soon able to picture increasingly better lives for herself. Referring back to the book’s multiple themes—from the beginning, Nora has needed to learn to imagine the life she wants, so she can live it with less fear. And since the only way to learn is to live… she must continue to live, while coming to appreciate the importance of small things.

Undoing regrets turns out to be a key for her and a way to enhance her vision of what she’s capable of feeling and believing. In some lives, she attracts a lot of attention. In others, almost none. She tests out being rich, poor, popular, nearly friendless, ambitious, obscure, in a relationship, not in one, and more. But the perspective she gains from all of these continues to shape her worldview.

On the plus side, Nora reaches a kind of acceptance about life—there might be bad experiences, yes, but there won’t be only bad experiences. She knows now that she hadn’t tried to end her original life merely because she was miserable, but because she’d convinced herself that there was no way out of it and no other options. Conversely, she no longer feels at home anywhere. She’s begun to lose the sense of who she was in her root life.

With Mrs. Elm’s encouragement, she enters yet another possible life, this one with Ash, the surgeon who’d found her dead cat and showed her tremendous kindness (just the night before, in her real/root life). Here, they’re married, definitely happy together, and share a beautiful 4-year-old daughter named Molly. But Nora can’t shake the feeling that she turned up too late for this life. That she hadn’t earned it. Even when she begins to “remember” things with Ash and Molly that she hadn’t actually lived, Nora feels a burgeoning love for them both, but it comes with a sense of profound loss in not having been there from the beginning.

There’s also a newfound sympathy for her original self, especially when she discovers that a few of her actions from her root life had made a significance difference to others—the big importance of small things. Much as she wishes she could stay in this world, Nora finds herself returning to the library.

But there’s a problem with the Midnight Library. The building itself is self-destructing. Here, the A and B Stories cross because what’s happening in Nora’s original life is impacting her ability to continue her search for an alternate one. Her very existence is at risk. If she dies in her root life, there can be no other choices—no other parallel lives for her to experience—not even one she loves.

The librarian urges her to get out before everything burns up or collapses, handing her a fountain pen that she’ll need to write on the blank book, which will be the life Nora really wants—the continuation of her original, real life. She barely manages to write, “I AM ALIVE,” before the library and the Mrs. Elm of her imagination disappear.

Nora, awakening just moments after her overdose, manages to get help in time to save herself and stay alive. She’s then given the opportunity to reconnect with important people in her life (i.e., her brother, her piano student’s mom, her neighbor, etc.) because she’s chosen to still exist. She has a new and much healthier perspective on living. Or as Thoreau famously wrote, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

Final Image (pages 287 – 288): In a perfect narrative bookend, Nora is again playing chess with Mrs. Elm, but this is the real librarian, the one Nora knew from her youth, who is now a much older woman and a resident at a local care facility. As she sits down to this game with her childhood librarian and friend, Nora Seed accepts her life as it is today and contemplates her next move.

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