My first book of 2022, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, took me on a mental rollercoaster. BookTok really had me thinking that this story was going to change my life, which it didn’t, even though it did tweak my mindset somewhat (which some would say makes all the difference). Do I regret reading it? No. But, it wasn’t worth the hype. I encourage you to give it a shot yourself, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about the spoilers ahead.
When Nora Seed (maybe a bit of a loaded name choice…) decides it’s time to end her life for good, she does just that. After her overdose, she ends up in a place between life and death which manifests as her childhood safespace: a library with her favorite librarian, Ms. Elm. Each of the books on the shelf allows her to undo a regret and “try on” that life as she searches for a preferred existence. Sounds great, right? Well, sort of.
While scanning Goodreads reviews, I came across one stating “quietly profound and deeply meaningful.” Not sure if “quietly” is the right word, Jessica. Haig’s approach is more of a put-it-on-a-billboard-right-on-the-405-and-frame-it-with-semi-illegal-light-reflectors-to-optimize-exposure type of style. Instead of being gently nudged in the direction of self reflection and discovery, you’re blatantly told the takeaways that you’re meant to adopt. Because of this prescriptive method, this book tends to teeter on the edge between fantastical sci-fi novel and self-help book. But hey, to each their own.
Cards on the table, I did cry while reading this. Not sure about the gravity of that statement considering I cry every time I watch The Great British Bake Off, but I couldn’t consider this a thorough review without that inclusion. If you give over to the lack of subtlety, there are some opportunities for mindfulness and reflection, mostly in the time itself spent thinking about the concept of life. Not sure if this space for growth is fueled exactly by Haig’s writing or the reader’s own mental state, but it’s space nonetheless. Much like with anything else(and life itself), what you give is what you get.
And one thing I got, one huge thing, is the reminder that holding onto regrets isn’t always a good thing. Quite the contrary, actually. Imagine how our mindset would change—how creative, brave, imaginative, and confident we’d become—without our regrets to hold us back. This essentially is the mindset that yanks Nora out of her suicidal headspace and gives her the hope to leave the library and return to the living world, her original life. That gift is something that we, the reader, receive from the library also when reading this book. The reminder to let go of our regrets and stop wasting mental energy on choices that can’t be undone.
Nora ending up in her original life was a good call in my opinion, especially because many of my qualms with the book lay with her alternate realities. Why is it that with each choice undone only one major thing changed? And that thing often came with huge success and the death of a family member? Does the butterfly effect not exist in this universe?
Each of her other dimensions began with the same root life, meaning that her natural talents and abilities were the same each time. Even with infinite paths her life could’ve taken, the choices that she decided to undo didn’t always correspond with the most realistic outcome. Just as deciding not to quit swimming in highschool doesn’t necessarily ensure three olympic medals, deciding to stick with music doesn’t correlate directly with stardom. Unless you’re Nora Seed I guess, the most secretly talented cat-owner to ever grace earth’s surface.
The hype surrounding this book both skyrocketed it and sabotaged it. The frustration is palpable among the Goodreads reviews, a good sign for the premise of the book. It clearly inspired excitement and optimism, even if its appraisal was met with levels of disappointment. Some people found it to be condescending, child-like, unrealistic, or exactly what they needed to hear at that moment in time. And I’ll admit, that’s a powerful impact.
We can all agree that the “all you need is love” message is overdone. It’s not revolutionary, but I guess the reminder doesn’t hurt. The crushing pressure of the first few chapters did a great job of snuffing out any sort of optimism that Nora, or the reader, had for the future. The way that this sense of dread changed immediately once she decided to return to her root life really drove home the power of one’s mindset for me. Even though her situation remained intact, it all of a sudden didn’t feel like the end of the world anymore, which is a concept that I will be using as a future reminder to myself.
When I think of The Midnight Library, I don’t think about depression or hope or entertainment. I think about frustration. The frustration that this book was good, even though it could’ve been great. BookTok didn’t necessarily let me down, but with its reviews on a pedestal as tall as the Empire State Building, it did set me up for a pretty big letdown. Haig’s style isn’t for everyone (as no good author can be), but if you do end up resonating with him, he might just save your life.