‘The Midnight Library’ by Matt Haig

The road not taken is a plot device that has been explored in countless books, movies, and television shows. What if you had a second chance at a life already lived? What if you could go back to a certain moment and make a different choice? The idea of a magical reset button that would erase mistakes and alter decisions can often be an appealing one. But is the grass always greener? Matt Haig attempts to answer these questions in The Midnight Library. While I didn’t like everything in this novel, it was a satisfying and motivational read with a positive message for anyone out there struggling to make sense of this great adventure called life.

How could I resist a book titled The Midnight Library? Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Nora is a woman who possesses many talents, but she feels that she has achieved nothing in her life. She excelled at swimming in high school and could have made it to the Olympics, but she quit, damaging her relationship with her father in the process. Both of her parents have now passed away, and she doesn’t have the best relationship with her brother after giving up their dream of being in a band together. Nora was also a scholar of philosophy in college, but she never did anything meaningful with that degree. She would be married by this point, but she left her fiancée shortly before their wedding, Her best friend is having an adventure halfway around the world. In a life of filled with regrets, she loses both her job and her cat, Voltaire in the same day. “As she stared at Voltaire’s still and peaceful expression-that total absence of pain-there was an inescapable feeling brewing in the darkness. Envy.” Nora then writes a final note and decides to take her life. But the story is far from over as she is transported to a mysterious library being run by an even more enigmatic librarian.

“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?”

The librarian, who takes the appearance of someone special from Nora’s youth, explains that every book on the shelves is a doorway to a different life. In one book, she marries the man she left. Another transports her to a life as a world-famous Olympic swimmer. There’s even one where her life is relatively the same, but she never let her cat out of the house. A myriad of worlds can be accessed, and Nora can sample as many as her heart desires. The library is also home to a rather different book, The Book of Regrets, a catalog of every regret Nora has had in her lifetime. The librarian encourages Nora to sample a variety of texts, promising that as soon as Nora feels a moment of dissatisfaction, she’ll find herself back in the library. This may happen after only a few minutes or last several months.

Nora is initially reluctant. She’s finished with life. However, the librarian points out that she wouldn’t be there unless she truly wanted to be. By the end, she’ll have opened many books. Some of these lives are explored in detail. Others last as long as a sentence. While Nora struggles to find that “perfect” life, what does begin to happen is Nora’s own transformation from someone who wants to be dead into someone that wants to embrace the life she has. As Nora experiences more and more alternate lives, The Book of Regrets begins to get lighter in weight.

As Nora works through a multitude of possibilities, she learns the impact of her choices on others besides herself. A small cast of characters appear time and time again in most of Nora’s lives. Her brother, her parents, her best friend, and occasionally the man she would have married cross paths with her. Nora discovers the impact her life choices have on her loved ones. There is definitely a vibe of “It’s a Wonderful Life” happening in this story.

While we get answers to several questions, many go unanswered. What happens to her alternate selves when Nora prime is inhabiting them? While answers are hinted at, the issue is not really addressed. For the most part, the story moves seamlessly. The chapters are extremely short, and the structure of the book is like a fable straight out of the mind of Neil Gaiman. I loved how the book addressed some psychological concepts, such as cognitive distortions, but keeps the explaining light in order to focus on the actual plot.

“Of course, we can’t visit every place or meet every person or do every job, yet most of what we’d feel in any life is still available. We don’t have to play every game to know what winning feels like. We don’t have to hear every piece of music in the world to understand music. We don’t have to have tried every variety of grape from every vineyard to know the pleasure of wine. Love and laughter and fear and pain are universal currencies. We just have to close our eyes and savour the taste of the drink in front of us and listen to the song as it plays. We are as completely and utterly alive as we are in any other life and have access to the same emotional spectrum.”

It can be a challenge to keep a reader invested in a depressed and somewhat listless character. The opening chapters are dark, but soon it becomes easy to like Nora. As a philosophy student, she develops a particular affection for the American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. The book is all the richer, as any book would be, for the inclusion of several of his quotes: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams” and “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” I also loved how there were a couple of references to writer Sylvia Plath, who sadly, gave up her life to suicide.

I felt a real connection to Nora, and I shared in her happiness as she grows in her own power and begins to embrace life. While the ending did feel a tad too neat, I was still pleased with the outcome. The final message is sound. Make the most out of the life you have. Our lives are filled with hundreds of choices, and they are too short to live inside The Book of Regrets. Maybe the grass does look greener on the other side, but there will be positives and negatives to every unchosen path. The bottom line is this: embrace the life you have and stay focused in the moment. Enjoy the ride because it won’t last forever.

“The only way to learn is to live.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

‘In One Person’ by John Irving

“We are formed by what we desire.” Thus begins a journey of self-discovery for William “Billy” Abbott, the protagonist/narrator of John Irving’s 13th novel, In One Person. Another beginning worth noting in this review is that this book marks my initial foray into the works of this author. You may be wondering why I didn’t begin with one of the classic Irving novels, such as The World According to Garp or The Cider House Rules. Surely those would have been better starting places, those novels that immediately spring to mind when you think of John Irving. For me personally, whenever I begin a new author, I usually prefer to work my way up to the more famous works. I’d rather get a sense of this particular writer’s style before diving into the greatest hits. Based upon my initial thoughts of In One Person, I must say that I’m in for some phenomenal reading experiences. This novel alone deserves to be considered a classic in its own right, with brilliant Dickensian characters, fantastic narration, and a beautifully told story that will often have you laughing and crying. In One Person is a book that works on a multitude of levels. It is a story about sexual awakening. But it is also a story about memories, both the good and the unsettling ones. Most importantly, In One Person is about understanding yourself through the power of others’ stories.

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Author John Irving. Photo Credit: Jost Hindersmann, used in The Paris Review

In One Person is told across Billy’s lifetime, from the 1950’s when Billy is 13 all the way to 2010 when he is in his late 60’s. Rather than tell his story in chronological order, Irving is true to life and moves back and forth over significant moments in the character’s lifetime. I thought this technique enhanced the story, as after all, we do not look back on our lives in a linear fashion. Rather, we tend to jump through time to various touchstones. While we have no choice but to live in a straight line, our memories tend to curve over and over. Raised in a small Vermont town by his overbearing mother and aunt, Billy never knew his father. “I had his name if not his presence,” our narrator states early in the novel. Anyone who grew up in a small town, such as the book’s fictional setting of First Sister, Vermont, can relate to Billy’s sheltered upbringing. Little did he know that his world was about to become so much larger during his introductory trip to the town library where he meets and falls in love with librarian Miss Frost.

While Billy’s mind is opened to the wonders of authors such as Charles Dickens, he quickly becomes enamored with the mysterious town librarian. Miss Frost knows nothing of Billy’s sexual anguish as he tries to check out Great Expectations for the second time. She strongly recommends he read a different novel by Mr. Dickens for his second read. Billy knows that only two things matter to him at age 15: to be a writer, and to sleep with Miss Frost, but “not necessarily in that order.” A protagonist who desires to be a writer is nothing new to Irving, so there are always powerful literary conversations running throughout his novels. Great Expectations, Madame Bovary, and Giovanni’s Room are just a small sample of the works of literature discussed throughout In One Person. Unlike other novels that name drop famous writers and seem pretentious, I found that Irving manages to organically connect whatever work Billy is reading at the time to moving the narrative forward. While Mr. Dickens is so important as a fascinating text for children without parents, usually fathers, it is Shakespeare’s The Tempest that really serves as the heart of this novel.

“And when you love a book, commit one glorious sentence of it-perhaps your favorite sentence-to memory.”

An important centerpiece to the town of First Sister, as well as Billy’s upbringing, is an enthusiastic amateur dramatic society accustomed to staging several famous play from the likes of The Bard and Agatha Christie. The handsome teacher, and later Billy’s stepfather, Richard Abbot, firmly believes that the only way to properly teach Shakespeare is to have it performed. As Favorite River is an all-boys school, the female parts are offered throughout the town, allowing for plenty of comedic moments as well as psychological depth. For example, Billy’s grandfather is known as a man’s man with his own lumber business. But on the stage, he often takes on the top female roles with considerable aplomb, such as Christie’s famous female detective Miss Marple.

While several of Shakespeare’s plays are performed throughout the course of the novel, The Tempest is the one that resonates most clearly in terms of plot. Miss Frost serves as the novel’s Caliban, banished to the old library where she lives in its musty basement. As it turns out, Miss Frost is transgendered, in a time before the term was used. Known in high school as wrestling champion “Big Al,” Miss Frost is an outcast for her decision to live as a woman. Desire and the conflicts of the soul are central to Irving’s fiction. As Billy transitions to adulthood with attractions to both women and men, he struggles with his sexual feelings, to which Irving attempts to bring full circle back to the absent father. Early in the novel, our narrator reflects, “I believed that all my demons are hereditary.” It would be many years later that Billy learns the truth about his father, a short but powerful scene that helps him in accepting the person that he has become.

Can you tell I’ve become a fan of Irving? Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

While most novels have one or two memorable supporting characters, In One Person provides such a scope of larger-than-life Dickensian characters. It would be impossible for me to forget any of these characters. Billy’s lumberyard grandpa who leaves his crossdressing to primarily the stage serves as the man who gives Billy the courage to carry on through his various crises and misadventures. Miss Frost, the librarian who becomes Billy’s first lover as an adult, is a towering presence in shaping the person he becomes. Billy’s best friend, and sometimes lover, Elaine is the over-the-top friend we all deserve. I really loved this relationship because although the two had their ups and downs, the friendship between the two was clearly always there. Another wise Irving quote states, “You can learn a lot from your lovers, but for the most part you get to keep your friends longer, and you learn more from them.”

The most troubled character of the novel, desired by all, is the wrestler and drama student Kittredge. I hated him at first with his bullying ways and acid tongue. Soon, I recognized him for who he was beneath the mask, a broken soul who used his heterosexuality as a weapon. Like most bullies, his personality was merely a mask to hide his true self.

“I had already decided that my bisexuality meant I would be categorized as more unreliable than usual by straight women, while at the same time (and for the same reasons) I would never be entirely trusted by gay men.”

Billy identifies himself as bisexual. There’s plenty of discussion in the novel about how hostile both sexes can be to bisexuals. Can you trust them? Why can’t they make up their minds? One of the most painful sections of the book details the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. As a child of that time period, I remember the rampant fear that spread across the country, subsequently spurring increased hatred of homosexuals. This leads to one of the most tragic characters of the novel, as Billy’s friend and former lover lies to his wife about his sexuality. The consequences are heartbreaking. In fact, the final third of the novel is so emotionally draining. For all the comedic moments that will make you smile, Irving can dish out the pain in equal measure.

In One Person gives so much to its readers. It’s funny, but also extremely risky in what it exposes. Billy’s story comes full circle, again through Shakespeare, as he returns to direct Romeo and Juliet, casting a transgendered student to play Juliet. As a teenager, Billy was cast as the ungendered sprite Ariel in The Tempest where he was ridiculed by his rival/crush Kittredge. Now, years later Billy stands accused at the age of 68 of being not “natural, not normal.” Billy’s reply echoes the warning given to him decades before by Miss Frost: “Don’t make me a category before you get to know me.”

Sadly, everything explored in this book is still relevant. Tolerance is not about anything goes. It’s what happens when we remove our masks and allow ourselves to be who we are. In One Person is such a beautiful and intimate exploration into the human mind. It dares to question our expectations and notions on desire and normalcy. While we don’t always act on our desires, they still influence our self-knowledge. Most importantly, this book is about being true to yourself, even when the world won’t let you. Irving battles the concept of “normalcy” through Billy Abbott, who in turn, becomes one of the best warriors this writer has seen in a work of fiction.

“Most places we leave in childhood grow less, not more fancy.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

The Next Classics Club Spin (Updated with Results)

That’s right, it’s time for another spin! The idea is to select 20 random books from your Classics Club List and post them before Sunday, April 18. Then, a number will be chosen which reveals the title that must be read by the end of May. I can’t wait to see what my book will be!

Classics Club Spins are EXCITING!!!!

Here are my choices:

  1. Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  2. Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
  3. Jayne Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  4. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  5. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  8. The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
  9. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
  10. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  11. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  12. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  13. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  14. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
  15. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  16. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  17. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  18. Around the World in 80 days by Jules Verne
  19. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  20. Orlando by Virginia Woolf

A lot of Dickens on the list this time, so fingers crossed. I’ll update this post when the magic number is revealed! Good luck to all the other Clubbers out there!

Update: My first Dostoevsky! It’s a long one, but I plan to read it in sections as I read other books.

Book Club Cat GIF
Reading glasses don’t fail me now!!!

‘Klara and the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

This will be considered a modern masterpiece. I wrote this sentence in my book journal while reading Klara and the Sun, the eighth-published novel from the mind and soul of Kazuo Ishiguro. Yet the word “masterpiece” is not one I take lightly, casually throwing it at whatever piece of fiction I happen to be reading at the time. In fact, I’m nearly certain that the last time I referred to a novel as a “modern masterpiece” was for Never Let Me Go, another work composed by Ishiguro. Perhaps my willingness to lavish this much praise on the merits of one author speaks more of his abilities as a writer than on mine as a reviewer. In the past, I’ve discussed the richness in My Experiences Reading Kazuo Ishiguro. Despite their similarities in terms of themes, a lot has changed in the sixteen years that separate Never Let Me Go and this latest offering. The world is a very different place with this current generation witnessing first-hand the fragility and the inevitability of death. Like a lone philosopher on a pilgrimage to better understand what makes us human, Ishiguro’s latest novel is a moving and profound exploration into the power of hope as well as what constitutes the human soul.

Klara and the Sun (2021) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

The story is set in the near future, at a time of fascist political movements and divided loyalties. Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? However, Ishiguro doesn’t focus in-depth on the greater scheme of things, keeping his lens finely honed on his central characters. The narrator of this novel is Klara, an Artificial Friend (AF) designed to act as a companion to a lonely child who does not get out much in this brave new world. When we are first introduced to Klara, she is on display in a department store window. To refer to her as simply a robot does not do her justice because Klara, as her store manager says in a sales pitch, has an “appetite for observing and learning….[and] has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store.” Despite her sharp observation skills, Klara also projects naivete in regards to this world. For example, Klara, who is solar-powered, believes the Sun to be this all-powerful deity who awakens in the morning, travels through the sky, and rests at night. This combination of keen observation and childlike insight make her the perfect flawed narrator among the long line of unreliable Ishiguro protagonists, such as Stevens the butler and Kathy H. It is Klara’s purpose to be adopted into a loving home where she can serve as a companion to a deserving child. One day, a pale and sickly-looking teen named Josie comes into the store with her mother, a woman who, Klara notices, carries an “angry exhaustion” in her eyes. Immediately forming a bond with Klara, Josie chooses her to be her best friend. Klara is packed up and sent to Josie’s home.

One of the delights of an Ishiguro novel is the gradual reveal as to the truth of the world he has created. As his audience, we learn the truth right alongside of our narrator. But it is a slow reveal. A struggle for me in writing this review is that I do not want to spoil the discovery for my readers who have not yet read this beautiful novel. Therefore, I shall tread lightly. Over time, we discover a rather painful truth about Josie, the result of a decision made by her mother some time ago. The plot builds to a reveal that is as easily disturbing as the truth of Kathy H. in Never Let Me Go. Just like that past novel, Ishiguro is asking us to consider the essence of the human soul. Rather, what constitutes our core essence?

While his first three novels concluding with The Remains of the Day were firmly grounded in realism, Ishiguro has since then played with various genres in order to explore his themes on humanity. The Unconsoled, his most experimental novel, is written as a series of jumbled dreams. The following three novels utilize detective fiction (When We Were Orphans), science fiction (Never Let Me Go), and fantasy (The Buried Giant). With Klara and the Sun, the author writes this story in the form of a children’s fable, complete with a hero willing to do everything in her power to save her friend. Klara’s voice, her sensibility-if you can say that of an artificial lifeform -is pure and devoted. The question of whether Klara, indeed, has a “soul” is a crucial one here, as it was in Never Let Me Go where the young female narrator is a clone. Klara is such a compelling presence that I think most readers of this novel would agree that she’s a sentient being. As the plot unfolds, it leads one character to ask:

Let me ask you this. Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t simply mean the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?

Kazuo Ishiguro, the New Nobel Laureate, Has Supremely Done His Own Kind of  Thing | The New Yorker
Kazuo Ishiguro is well-deserving of the Nobel Prize, Photo Credit: David Levene

Klara certainly seems capable of loving. In fact, she risks her own life in order to appease the benevolent Sun for assistance. Whether more of these artificial lifeforms have this ability, or perhaps Klara is more special than what anyone realizes, we will never know. However, Klara’s “misguided” hope proves to be contagious to other characters in the novel. Josie’s friend Rick is more than willing to help Klara in her quest, even if he does not fully understand it. There’s a very powerful scene involving Klara and Josie’s father, where he helps her sabotage a pollution machine if it means saving Josie’s life. I believe Ishiguro was showing that “hope” is powerful enough when it comes to the ones we hold dear to our hearts.

While I believe Klara is capable of loving others, I also believe others are capable of loving her. When the character of Mr. Capaldi, the closest character to an antagonist, returns to the home to ask for permission to experiment on Klara, Josei’s mother vehemently refuses as she wants Klara to finish her life naturally. The ending of this novel is essentially bittersweet. None of the human characters fully grasp the sacrifices that Klara made on behalf of Josie. Perhaps this makes the ending to this novel rather heartbreaking. Without giving anything away, I found the final scene to be very sad despite our narrator viewing it differently. True to her name, which translates to “bright”, Klara shines beautifully on the connections that sustain us in an increasingly lonely world. Reading Klara and the Sun reminds us to cherish our time together, just as Klara gives praise to every moment she exists in the sun’s warmth.

“There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

‘The Beginner’s Goodbye’ by Anne Tyler

One of the joys of having a book blog (there are many) is that it has given me the opportunity to explore such a variety of books. Take my last three posts for example. I went from reading a Stephen King masterpiece, followed by an epic work of science fiction, and now I’m reviewing a contemporary drama on grief and loss. Although Anne Tyler has been a literary giant for some time, The Beginner’s Goodbye is only her second book that I’ve read. I enjoyed Vinegar Girl, her modern retelling of Taming of the Shew., and the opening line of this novel was just too intriguing to pass up. While this novel ended up being completely different from my expectations, I still found it quite moving. One commonality I’ve found in both books was the attention Tyler puts into her characters. As she states in an interview in the back of my copy, she prefers “looking through a microscope rather than a telescope.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012) by Anne Tyler, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

I have to admit that’s a pretty stellar opening line. However, this is not a story about actual ghosts or someone actually coming back to life. Rather, The Beginner’s Goodbye is a moving portrait of grief. This is a story about the importance of paying attention to the living. The protagonist is Aaron Woolcott who runs his family’s publishing company, in which their bestsellers are a line of introductory books on various topics. Aaron is constantly frustrated by his overbearing sister, who has babied him since a childhood illness led to a slight paralysis on the right side of his body. When he meets Dorothy, a physician whose bedside manner is a tad questionable, the two strike up an unusual courtship and are married. When Aaron loses her in a freak accident (a tree falls through their house), he struggles to find the meaning in his life. Then, months later, Dorothy reappears and disappears at various times. No, this isn’t a ghostly encounter. It’s just one moment she’s there, and one moment she’s not. Aaron’s attempts to find meaning in these visitations helps him to finally figure himself out.

As I was reading, my mind kept going back to all of my clients who have suffered through grief. As a therapist, I’ve had my share of families who have had tragic losses. While I’m well-versed in the stages of grief, the truth is nothing can prepare you for it. Sadly, there is no such thing as the Beginner’s Guide to Grief or Grief for Dummies. While dealing with the loss gets easier over time, the sad truth is that you have to suffer the hurt.

Oh my, I’ve made this sound like such a depressing read, haven’t I? But it’s actually not. Yes, it tackles a tragedy. However, Tyler does insert many light-hearted and funny moments in this novel as we accompany Aaron on his journey of discovery. The comedic moments do not detract from the tragedy itself. Rather, it supports it and helps to keep it honest. I originally thought this book was about Dorothy showing up again and again, with Aaron wondering if she’s real or not, but that wasn’t the case at all. Rather, Dorothy is more a presence while the real story focuses on Aaron and the other living characters that surround him.

I found that I could relate to various moments as Aaron worked through his grief. For example, he hires a contractor to fix his house, but keeps making excuses about why he doesn’t have to be there to oversee the work. That house, after all, is a reminder of how Dorothy had died, and it’s only natural to want to stay away, even past the point of common sense — Aaron, now living with his sister, has to ask the contractor to bring over some of the clothes he’d left behind. It’s a short dialogue but it tells volumes.

This is one of my favorite lines of the book:

“I realized that I had survived [the loss]… Even though I still felt a constant ache, I seemed unknowingly to have traveled a little distance  away from that first unbearable pain…And yet, just two nights later, I had one of those dreamlike thoughts that drift past as you’re falling asleep. Why! I thought. Dorothy hasn’t phoned me lately!…But then I came fully awake and I thought, Oh. She’s dead. And it wasn’t any easier than it had been at the very beginning.”

Anyone who has suffered a loss can relate.

Coming to terms with Dorothy’s death also means coming to terms with their life together. It wasn’t a good marriage. As the audience, we realize it long before Aaron does. A huge moment occurs when Aaron takes ownership of why his marriage wasn’t always a happy one. It’s a short but powerful scene that helps him to come to some measure of peace. Through understanding his own mistakes in his marriage, Aaron realizes the importance of paying attention to the living, to look a little closer.

While I did enjoy the book, there were aspects I did not enjoy. I really didn’t enjoy the characters very much. Dorothy is very cold, and Aaron often comes across as much older than a man in his thirties. I’m not sure I liked the ending either, but overall it works. The subplots involving the other characters were interesting. As anyone who grieves is forced to learn, others’ lives keep going forward even when yours feels at a standstill. Seeing other people fall in love can be touching yet bittersweet, as we view it through Aaron’s eyes.

The interview with the author in the back was also informative of her writing process. I’m definitely willing to try a third book from the soul of Anne Tyler. On a completely different note, I’m throwing out rating books. For one, I want the reviews to be read in their entirety. Also, I love most everything I read as I find plenty of positives. But I’m not afraid to share what I don’t like about a book as well. While The Beginner’s Goodbye may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I’m willing to bet every reader can find one passage that’s relatable. Truth be told, isn’t that the point?

“I used to toy with the notion that when we die we find out what our lives have amounted to, finally. I’d never imagined that we could find that out when somebody else dies.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.