The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

The idea of a library where every book represents a life you would have lived if you had made one different choice is intriguing. The “two roads diverged in a wood” idea. How many of us haven’t at least wondered what might have happened if we had pursued a different degree, taken a different first job, moved to a different city?

Nora, the protagonist of The Midnight Library lacks, the essential motivation suggested by the title of Matt Haig’s memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive. Having attempted suicide, Nora winds up in a sort of limbo, with the opportunity to choose a different “book.” She even gets to sample them.

One consequence of Haig’s unconventional plot is that it’s difficult to sustain rising and falling action when the character enters so many lives. I began to wonder, how is this going to reach a climax? At some point past halfway, the possibility that Nora could die before choosing introduces some tension. But I was fairly certain that wasn’t going to happen. The most compelling question was, of course, what life will she choose?

Mrs. Elm, Nora’s guide in the midnight library, invokes quantum physics to explain the existence of branching simultaneous lives. According to my husband (with a degree in electrical engineering), the metaphysics aren’t supported by real-world science. But I sense Haig employs them as a literary device rather than a literal proposition.

I suspect my reasons to go on living diverge from Haig’s, but they no doubt overlap. I appreciate the implicit acknowledgement that following our dreams or finding “fulfillment” may not yield unambiguously positive results. Every choice constitutes a rejection of something else, with repercussions for not only ourselves but those around us.

The Midnight Library is sort of a British, multiverse version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Nora’s town is even named Bedford—cf. George Bailey’s Bedford Falls.) By the end of the book, Nora recognizes the impact of even small parts played in the lives of others and realizes anew that daily life abounds with opportunities to care and love.

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