Like most people, Nora Seed has regrets. She regrets giving up swimming because of the strain it placed on her relationship with her dad. She regrets calling off her wedding to Dan and working with him to start a country pub. She regrets quitting a band with her brother just as they were on the cusp of success due to crippling social anxiety.
After being laid off from her dead-end job in a music store, Nora decides that her life is no longer worth living. She sets about ending things, only to find herself at The Midnight Library. The library is a kind of way station between this world and the next, in which Nora is allowed to pick from a myriad of books that represent different choices she could have made during her life’s journey. The hope is that Nora will find a life in which she’s happier or one that helps her erase the heaviness of her personal book of regrets.
And so, Nora starts trying on lives. She can return to the library at any time if she starts feeling the life doesn’t live up to her expectations.
At this point, I couldn’t help but feel like Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library was taking a page from one of my favorite shows, Quantum Leap, with Nora leaping into and out of lives with little or no context or knowing the history of things. And while she does have her version of Al in the grade-school librarian of Mrs. Elm, Nora doesn’t have a guide once she enters life to catch her up on things that have happened until now or the choices she made to get there.
As an exploration of the potential of a multiverse in which each decision of our lives creates multiple new universes and histories, The Midnight Library is a wonderful treat. Haig doesn’t explore if what’s happening to Nora is real or something imagined in the transition from life to death and he leaves the details of just how all this works deliberately vague. We do meet another traveler like Nora who is trying on various lives with varying degrees of success. However, unlike her fellow traveler, Nora finds that she’s running out of time.
What Nora learns along the way isn’t necessarily the deepest examination of the meaning of life, but it’s lessons that feel authentic to her character and this part of her story. Nora’s discovery that she needs to make decisions that would make her happy and not necessarily make everyone around her happy works well enough and is about as deep as the story goes, though there are times when Haig attempts to make the story feel a bit more profound than it really is. At its core, The Midnight Library is an escape story into the life of Nora Seed, allowing us to get to know a bit more about her.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a beauty to Haig’s writing and style. Listening to this as an audiobook, certain phrases and paragraphs jump out, feeling as if they’re washing over you and attempting to offer some profound observations of Nora, her life, and her choices. There’s some not too subtle commentary on the human condition and what it means to lead a “good life” along the way, as well. Much of this starts to happen toward the end of the novel as Nora starts to spend more time in each life, really trying it on to see how it fits instead of quickly dismissing it. I will admit a few moments tugged at my heartstrings in the second half, making me glad that I was working out while listening and you couldn’t tell that I possibly had a few tears in my eyes.
I will also give Haig credit that he doesn’t go down an avenue I thought he might late in the story. SPOILER warning for those of you who don’t want to know.
Late in the story, Nora leaps into a life in which she has a child and finds herself embracing parenthood. At one point, Haig seems to be heading toward the child being involved in a horrible accident as the way for Nora to become dissatisfied with this life and to leap out of it. Thankfully, while there is a minor tricycle accident, it’s nowhere near as horrible as it could have been. This may say more about my own mindset than it does about the novel. I leave that up to you to decide.
The audiobook is read by Carey Mulligan, who I can’t help but see as Sally Sparrow from Doctor Who no matter what role she plays next or how many awards she seemingly is in the running for. Given the nature of “Blink,” and how the Weeping Angels sentence you to live your life until you die, just in a different time period, I can’t help but feel that Sparrow and Nora are linked a bit. Mulligan’s performance of the book is a solid one and it’s her reading of certain moments that helped them feel as profound as Haig intended.