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.