Review: The Midnight Library

Let me start my review Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library by saying this book deals heavily with the topics of depression and suicide, so if that is a sensitive area for you, be forewarned, because there are scenes that present that struggle very clearly (the first 23 pages are a vivid depiction of someone spiraling). Otherwise, I think it is a great exploration of possibility, our perception of reality, and ultimately, hope.

If I had to describe The Midnight Library in one sentence, I would call it It’s a Wonderful Life as written by Madeleine L’Engle. It takes the themes of the former and weaves in some of the science and philosophy of quantum mechanics and the multiverse in a manner similar to how I remember L’Engle weaving science and philosophical discussions into her plots: just enough so that you consider them seriously, but not so much that they steal focus from the protagonist’s journey and the emotional stakes of the plot. The story follows Nora in the events leading up to her decision to end her life, and the moment after, in which she finds herself in an unending library, the watch on her wrist stuck at midnight.

The librarian explains to her that each book contains one of Nora’s infinite possible lives—each based on a single different decision from the life she knows, referred to as her “root life,” and branching out to the present from that one diversion.  What her life would be if she hadn’t left her fiancé, if she’d pursued science instead of philosophy, or if she’d simply kept her cat an indoor cat—every life she might have lived is inside the library, an infinite number of possibilities. She can step into any of these lives, simply by opening a book and reading the first line, and if she finds one in which she truly wants to live, she can stay there and eventually forget root life and the library entirely, or else she will be pulled back to the library once she is disappointed with a life. And so, at the librarian’s urging, Nora begins to live.

Some of her lives are successful, some terrible, many surprising, but the more lives Nora lives, the more it becomes clear that no life is without its problems, and that she is capable of more and has already had more effect in the world than she ever realized. But will she ever find a life she wants to live, one in which she feels she truly belongs?

I can see why this has been a popular book club selection since it came out, as it offers a lot to discuss thematically. I’ve also seen less enthusiastic reviews call it “boring” or “predictable,” but I think those reviews are kind of missing the point. It’s a quiet book, not jam-packed full of action, but most lives are more quiet than action-packed, and this book is about finding meaning and purpose in the small day-to-day moments as much as in the high-profile ones. And it isn’t about twists or a surprise ending either; maybe those of us in good mental health already know the realizations Nora comes to, but the point is so many people like Nora, who are struggling with depression, have forgotten or never learned these truths, and we need to talk about that.

All in all, I give The Midnight Library four stars out of five. This is a quiet, perceptive read that invites good discussion and self-reflection, and ultimately tries to offer a little bit of hope.

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