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.
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.