“The Midnight Library”
By Robin Widmar
“Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you had decided to take a different path?”
That is a question asked of Nora Seed, the protagonist of Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library.” It is natural for people to ponder the “what ifs” of their lives, and Nora is no different. What is different about her, though, is that she is given the opportunity to examine the outcomes of various possible life decisions — and potentially to choose a new path altogether.
At 35, Nora feels like her life has become irretrievably stuck, and she’s not in a good place. She turned her back on an athletic career and broke off her engagement. She is estranged from her brother. Her musical dreams have fallen silent. She has been fired from her job. And if all of that was not enough, her beloved cat dies. Nora has hit rock bottom.
On the verge of ending her unhappy life, she winds up in a mystical library filled with infinite books about the alternate lives she could have lived if she only had made different choices. With the guidance of her former school librarian, Mrs. Elm, Nora simply selects a volume and voila! Automatic do-over.
Nothing is that easy, of course. The present day Nora finds herself inserted into different versions of her life without the benefit of previously accumulated knowledge and memories. She is left scrambling, sometimes comically, to figure out who she is in each existence and how she relates to everyone around her. The storyline resembles the plot of the TV show “Quantum Leap,” except Nora inhabits herself instead of someone else.
In one life, Nora has married her beau and helps him run a pub. She takes turns as a pop star, an Olympic medalist, and a glaciologist fending off a polar bear. She also explores a relationship with someone she was not brave enough to ask out in her present life.
But for one reason or another, each of the lives that Nora samples ends up not being quite what she had hoped for or expected. Each scenario offers a different palette of family and friends, which in some instances leaves her to confront the passing of loved ones. Sometimes it seems as if nothing has really changed but the scenery. “Maybe in every life I am stuck,” Nora says. The mysterious Mrs. Elm offers a different take: “You can choose choices but not outcomes.”
Everyone faces millions of choices, large and small, over the course of their lifetime. Even the most mundane of decisions can lead to a major plot twist in a person’s life — or not. (It’s that whole “you can’t choose outcomes” thing.) Nora’s ventures into the multiverse allow her to put into perspective the choices that led her to where she is today. She realizes “life isn’t simply made of the things we do, but the things we don’t do, too.” Eventually she concludes, “Maybe there was no perfect life for her, but somewhere, surely, there was a life worth living.” Nora gets to choose her path moving forward, but which one will it be?
Although “The Midnight Library” is a work of fiction intended to entertain, it also provokes introspection. Through Nora’s story, the author invites readers to examine the truths of their own messy, imperfect lives. The character of Mrs. Elm is a sage mentor who doles out bits of wisdom to guide Nora through her existential crisis. At the story’s end, perhaps the most notable piece of advice we could all take to heart is, “You don’t have to understand life, you just have to live it.”
Note: “The Midnight Library” contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know has thoughts of self-harm, please reach out to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by texting or calling 988. The Lifeline provides 24-hour, confidential support to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Call 911in life-threatening situations.