If you’ve never pondered life’s contingencies—like what might’ve happened if you’d skipped the party where you met your spouse—then Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library will be an eye-opening experience. This gentle but never cloying fable offers us a chance to weigh our regret over missed opportunities against our gratitude for the life we have.
Fresh from the loss of her job in a dreary English town she thinks of as a “conveyor belt of despair” and not far removed from the decision to cancel her wedding two days before the scheduled date, 35-year-old Nora Seed finds herself facing profound depression. When she decides to end her life, she awakes in the eponymous library, managed by Mrs Elm, the kindly school librarian who had befriended her as a lonely teenager.
The shelves of this unique library are crammed with identical-looking volumes, each one giving Nora a chance to see how her life would have turned out if she had made different choices. After first consulting her Book of Regrets, and with Mrs Elm’s encouragement, Nora plucks one book after another from the shelf, enabling her to shed her dismal “root life” and realize her dreams to live as an Arctic researcher, an international rock star, a philosophy professor, a mother and more. In each case, a sense of dissatisfaction finally propels Nora back to the Midnight Library, looking for another path, as she gradually comes to understand that the restless search itself may ultimately prove to be her undoing.
Haig, who’s been frank about his own experiences with depression, is a sympathetic guide for Nora’s journey. His allusions to multiverses, string theory and Erwin Schrödinger never detract from the emotional heart of this alluring novel. And when Nora’s sojourn allows her to realize that perhaps “even the most seemingly perfectly intense or worthwhile lives ultimately felt the same,” and that “life simply gave you a whole new perspective by waiting around long enough to see it,” Haig brings her story to a conclusion that’s both enlightening and deeply satisfying.