It's a Wonderful Library: a review of Matt Haig's 'The Midnight Library'
CW: attempted suicide
To be clear, I have always loved the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Despite its problem areas, its dea ex machina ending, and its cloying sweetness, I still love it. It ends with such a strong message of hope and optimism and appreciation for life that I find it impossible to get too mad about it. The Midnight Library has all the same positive qualities without the negatives. His novel is nuanced, exploratory, and addresses a lot of the anxieties that make living our lives difficult. It’s a Wonderful Life for a modern audience.
Nora Seed is a thirty-five year old woman who feels like a failure. She’s haunted by regrets about the paths she chose not to follow and by the possibilities of all the things she could have been; an Olympic swimmer, the creative force behind a famous band, a glaciologist, a suburban mother. Now her parents have both passed away, her brother no longer talks to her, her best friend is in Australia, and she recently dropped out of her own wedding. She loses her job, her cat dies, and she ultimately feels that there is nobody in the world who needs her or cares about her. So she decides to die. As she is lying at home after an overdose, she finds herself in the Midnight Library. And there she finds she can change regrets from her past, make a different choice, and live the present-day version of that life instead. Initially some lives seem perfect, but she quickly finds that each one comes with its own problems. She struggles to find any life in which she is truly happy. The parallels with It’s a Wonderful Life become all the more obvious when Nora finally does find a life she’s happy in, but she can’t quite settle there. Hoping to make peace with herself, she visits her hometown, only to find it different because she wasn’t there. The place is sadder and people she cared about are worse off. She realises that she did make a difference to people she cared about. She finally understands that the life she wants to live is her original life, but she wants to make it better. For the first time, she wants to live for herself.
It’s a novel about shedding regrets and the expectations of others. So many of the regrets that Nora begins with are other people’s dreams; her father’s dream is to live vicariously through her as an Olympic athlete, her brother’s dream to be in a successful band, her fiancé’s dream to own a pub in the country. She tries each of these lives, only to find that the regrets she erases do not miraculously result in a perfectly happy life with no problems. She has to find what she wants out of life. The only way to move forward is to embrace the complexity and uncertainty of a life that encompasses the full spectrum of emotions, both good and bad.
The Midnight Library is full of hopeful, compassionate messages. Bad choices don’t annihilate future happiness, because there are still infinite possibilities ahead of you. Regrets weigh you down, but they don’t have to. People are imperfect, fallible creatures just trying their best. Small actions can make a big difference, even if you don’t see it. Everyone is valuable.
It’s not a perfect book, but it’s well-written, optimistic and has a level of dry humour that I really enjoyed. It was quite stressful to read at times, generally because Nora keeps being thrust into these other lives without context or preparation and naturally that results in a lot of social awkwardness. The chapter where she has to give a 45 minute lecture on how to be successful was a particularly tough one for me to read. It hits all the right notes in terms of performance anxiety and impostor syndrome, but brings the reader out on the other side. And I think it says good things about the novel as a whole that it’s easy to identify so strongly with Nora and her situation.
Nora herself is an enjoyable character to read and it’s not hard to like her. The part that I found most emotional was her difficult relationship with her brother, which she always blamed herself for. Towards the end, when he finally admits that he’s had his own ‘mental health stuff’ it promises the beginning of a healing relationship for the two of them. The love and affection Nora feels for him comes across strongly throughout and I think it’s one of the details that makes her such an appealing character. I did think that her name – Nora Seed – was perhaps a little heavy-handed as there is the repeated metaphor of the infinite lives being like the branches of a tree. But I also think that it’s easy to fully buy into the wholesome optimism of the novel and therefore to forgive the odd moment of heavy-handed cheesiness.
All in all, this is the kind of book I needed right now. It’s hopeful and I think that’s what everyone needs right now with such instability all over the world. For some reason, sincerity and optimism often seem to be met with cynicism, but these things are what makes The Midnight Library such an uplifting novel to read. So put aside the cynicism for a while and just enjoy the story.