Nora’s life has been going from bad to worse. Then at the stroke of midnight on her last day on earth she finds herself transported to a library. There she is given the chance to undo her regrets and try out each of the other lives she might have lived.
First published: 2020
The Midnight Library is one of the most popular books that came out last year; it even won the Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction in 2020. I’d never read anything by Matt Haig before, even though I’ve always been interested in him as a writer, so I decided to give this one a try, especially after seeing so many people love it. I got the book as Christmas gift from my parents-in-law, and then (the way those things go) I finally read it in August. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the biggest fan.
I really liked the concept of this novel and I was excited to see it explored, but the execution of the library concept is exactly where the book felt lacking for me. Let’s backpedal a bit and explain what exactly the Midnight Library is: it’s a place between life and death, and it looks different for everyone. For our main character Nora, it’s a library. In that library, Nora meets the old librarian from her school, who acts as a mentor and guide through this strange experience. The library is filled with books that contain possible lives for Nora. Lives she might have lived if she’d taken just one tiny different decision at a certain point in her life. Now, Nora can try them all out and if she comes across one she enjoys, she’ll be able to stay in that particular life.
Regret is an important theme within the story. More or less on the first page, we find out that Nora regrets most of the decisions she made in life. In fact, she feels so desperate and hopeless about her future that she ends her own life, which is how she ends up in the library. The library was an interesting way to explore the theme of regret and the book very effectively conveys the message that regret is not something we should linger on and that we should focus on the future and on the good things in life. Although the message is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, I did appreciate it, and it did make me feel hopeful about life. For that alone, I’m grateful to this book.
However, I think the plot could have used some more attention. The message is wonderful, but a novel should be more than a message (otherwise, I would’ve read one of Matt Haig’s non-fiction books – which I still definitely want to do). The plot felt rather flimsy and I was annoyed at how the library functioned: Nora is transported to one of her other lives without any knowledge of what that life entails. If she isn’t at home at the time of the transportation, she doesn’t know where she lives. She also has no idea about her job, her loved ones, her personality in this life… She’s basically a stranger in her ‘own’ life, and that felt counter-productive to me. How can you find out if a life is worth living if you haven’t lived most of it? This took me out of the story in a major way while reading. It also meant I had a hard time getting invested in Nora’s other lives.
In general, getting invested was an issue for me with this novel. I did root for Nora, but not as much as I would’ve liked. There are some novels that you want to get completely sucked in by, and this was one of them, and it didn’t happen. That’s partly due to the major annoyance mentioned above, but I also didn’t click with any of the side characters, and even Nora felt a bit distant. The writing was alright, but I did expect a little bit more.
All in all, The Midnight Library wasn’t the new favourite I’d hoped it would be, mostly due to the execution of the plot. However, I do understand why so many people have found solace and hope in this novel – I definitely experienced that as well. The message is wonderful, and this is a great time for this novel to have become popular, since a lot of people could use some comfort these days.