The Midnight Library

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Matt Haig
Genres: Science fiction
Pub. Date: Sep. 2020 (read Jan. 2021)

2.5 stars.

I read The Humans with my book club a few years ago and really didn’t like, so I’m not sure why I thought this would be any different. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the synopsis and the title, but at the end of the day this was pretty disappointing.

The concept of the book is that between life and death there is a place called the Midnight Library, which allows you to check out the lives you did not live. It centers around the idea of parallel lives and that every time we make a choice our lives diverge into the decisions we make and didn’t make. I’ve read a handful of books about parallel universes and I think it is a tough concept to get right. It’s a complex idea, so you better put a lot of thought into your execution.

I can see why this is a beloved book to a lot of people. It is about reflection and looking back on our lives, examining the decisions and mistakes we made. It’s a meaningful exercise to think about how our lives might have been different had we made different choices, but if examined too closely has the potential to ultimately lead to disappointment. Our main character Nora is granted the opportunity to look back on her life and I think a lot of readers are moved by how the experience changes and heals her.

Personally I didn’t like this book for two reasons. First, I thought the parallel universe theme was executed poorly and that the author didn’t go deep enough into the concept. And second, I thought the writing was too heavy handed. I felt like every single parallel life was an exercise in emotional manipulation. The author spells out every single lesson that Nora learns, even though they are all embarrassingly obvious. From Nora’s first attempt at settling in a parallel life, I predicted exactly how the rest of the story was going to go and at no point did the plot surprise me after that.

Let’s talk first about the execution of the concept of the Midnight Library. The concept is that you can visit any other life, with the idea being you find another one to settle in. However, the second you start to become disappointed with that life, you are instantly transported back to the library to try again. If you could actively make the decision to return to the library, I’d probably be okay with this concept, but in what universe are you going to live a life that is totally devoid of disappointments? Disappointment is a part of being human. Even if you are generally content in your life and wouldn’t trade it for the world, you will still face disappointments. So in my opinion Nora was pretty much doomed from the start. If you could make the choice to pursue a life despite disappointment, I might buy in, but inevitably something was always going to disappoint her and send her reeling back to the library.

Then there’s the fact that the more lives you live, the more likely you are to be disappointed by one life compared to another. It’s hard to be satisfied in any life when you know there are more possibilities out there. The author did address this through the inclusion of Hugo’s character, but combined these two factors just made the entire existence of the Midnight Library too flawed for me to really enjoy it. Also, the sheer exhaustion of constantly entering lives where you don’t know what’s going on is bound to continually send you running back to the library. If Nora was able to downloaded the sub-conscious of her parallel self whenever she entered a new life, it might be more believable that she might actually find happiness in one of them.

Finally, my last flaw with the concept was that in every choice Nora made, she became the most accomplished version of herself. I know the idea is that with infinite universes, every scenario is possible and that the reason Nora was so accomplished in every life was because that’s the life she desired to see when she checked the book out of the library. But I feel like it is the most basic of concepts that success doesn’t equal happiness. I didn’t like the dichotomy that with every choice you make you are giving up a life of extreme success. Success is not based solely on choice. You can make all the right choices in your life and never achieve even a moderate level of success. There are all kinds of other factors at play such as gender, privilege, race, ability, social class, economic background, etc. Which is why I felt the author didn’t commit to the plot. I think there’s a lot of room here to explore all kinds of social commentary, but the author came up with a shallow idea of parallel universes and never looked to delve any deeper.

Which leads me to my final criticism that the book is over-written. I feel like a broken record sometimes, but show don’t tell! I hate nothing more than when an author tells me how to feel. Good writing evokes sentiment and feeling. I don’t need you to spell out the disappointment of Nora’s many parallel lives, it’s extremely obvious. Like I said, from the start of the book, I could pretty much predict exactly how it was going to end. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a script of Chicken Soup for the Soul from 2000 with the intense catharsis constantly being shoved down my throat. Yet even though I knew where Nora was destined to end up, I still felt it was disingenuous to act like we’re all currently living the best version of ourselves and that all we need is a little perspective to cheer us up.

The one thing I did like about the book was Nora’s discovery that sometimes it is the mundane that is the most meaningful. After chasing after every kind of success, she finally realized that sometimes the quieter lives are the most fulfilling. Her life with Ash was the one thing I didn’t quite see coming and I was glad to see her finally find a modicum of happiness in one of her many lives. But that was really the only part of the story that I liked and mostly I just found it extremely tedious to go from one failed life to another.

The one thing I haven’t touched on is the portrayal of depression in this book. I did like that in almost every life Nora was taking medication for depression. But like I said, when someone is deeply discontented with their life, I find it hard to believe a little perspective would change their whole outlook on life. I’m not super knowledgeable about depression though, so I’ll leave that for other readers to comment on.

So in conclusion, definitely not a win for me. It was an interesting concept, but the execution was painfully tedious. Sadly I just don’t think this author is for me.

The Humans

Rating: ⭐.5
Author: Matt Haig
Genres: Science Fiction
Pub Date: May 2013 (Read Apr. 2018)

I have mixed feelings about this book. The author definitely provided some interesting social commentary on humans and some of our eccentricities and social norms, but I thought the story was flawed and there were a lot of things that bothered me.

The Humans is a sci-fi novel very reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ writing. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy isn’t one of my favs, but I did appreciate some of the humour in this book. The book starts with an alien who has taken over the body of professor Andrew Martin. Martin worked at Cambridge University as a mathematician and had a breakthrough in his work with prime numbers that could have changed everything for humans and greatly accelerated their technological advancements. The aliens are apparently threatened by this and send an unnamed alien to inhabit Martin’s body and destroy all evidence of his discovery (and anyone he might have told).

The alien is confident in his mission, but he quickly becomes baffled by humans and their emotions and begins to develop feelings for Andrew’s wife and son. He had thought the humans were a primitive race and is confused by many of their social norms and customs, but he starts to learn there are more to humans than meets the eye and that their ability to love and care for one another is actually one of their greatest strengths.

Like I said, this did have some interesting social commentary and made me think about how odd we can actually be. Humour is an effective way to highlight shortcomings and I thought the author did this well. But I just got so hung up on some of the inconsistencies in this book that I couldn’t love it. Minor spoilers below.

First of all, why do the aliens care about earth at all? They live a million light years away and I couldn’t understand why they would care if earth started to become more advanced. I kind of pictured things like star trek, but where humans are the primitive species that hasn’t yet progressed enough to be invited to join the federation, so the rest of the galaxy just leaves us to our ignorance. If there’s so many galaxies and other life forms, I don’t see what the big deal would be with earth advancing. We’d probably just accelerate the destruction of the planet knowing humans. So I thought the story was incredibly flawed for this reason.

Second, there were too many inconsistencies in what part of our culture the alien just inherently understood and didn’t understand. He can extrapolate the entire english language from one reading of Cosmo magazine, but he doesn’t understand why it might be imperative that he find himself some clothes so as not to draw attention to himself? Likewise, he knows to hit up a bar to drown his sorrows in alcohol, but he doesn’t understand that infidelity is not an acceptable thing? He read Cosmo! He should know better!

I get the whole not understanding emotions, but I feel like the author was just picking and choosing what would make sense to this alien to try and make the points he wanted to make. I was too frustrated by what was the point of it all to be enamoured with the author’s writing and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief that the alien would adapt to earth so quickly. If this alien came from a race without emotions, would he really start to develop emotions so quickly? Wouldn’t he be more like the vulcans and just not understand emotion at all? And don’t get me started on the “advice to a human” chapter. I’m sorry, but this was one giant eye-roll for me. This alien has been on the planet for like 2 weeks, no way he understands complex human emotions or is able to offer any meaningful insight about it that writers, artists, philosophers, and psychologists haven’t already observed.

So this wasn’t a win for me, but sci-fi isn’t really my genre. I don’t like being beaten over the head with social commentary and prefer for it to be woven into a story in a more meaningful way. This storytelling was more, ‘I’m going to tell you want’s wrong with humanity and what’s impressive about it’, vs telling me an emotional story that is going to indirectly lead me to the same conclusions. I can understand why some people like this, but overall not for me. Just taking the time to reflect and write this review has already lowered my opinion of this book, but I have a book club meeting about it on Friday, so I’ll see if maybe they can drag me back up on this one. (spoiler: they didn’t)