Nora Seed is convinced that she contributes nothing of value to the world. She has just lost everyone and everything that was dear to her, including her job and her last remaining companion, a cat. Caught between life and death, she finds herself in a mystery library with seemingly endless shelves of books. In “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig, the protagonist, Nora, is given a chance to pick a book and experience all the lives she could have lived in a parallel universe where all possibilities exist at the same time. Within the pages of this fantasy novel, we accompany Nora on an extraordinary journey as she discovers the inner strength to embrace life once more.
From an omniscient vantage point, The Midnight Library’s plot starts with Nora and Mrs. Elm, her school librarian, talking about her future and dreams as they play chess, 19 years before she decided to die.
Nora, now in her mid-30s, spends her days engulfed in despair as she refuses to forgive herself for abandoning her dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer when she was younger, dumping the band she and her brother had built, and ending her engagement to Dan.
When Nora’s neighbor Ash knocks on her door one night to tell her that Nora’s cat is dead on the side of the road, it appears to be the final straw. The following scenes explore the chain of circumstances that ultimately led to her decision to end her own life.
While attempting suicide, she finds herself in a seemingly endless hall lined with shelves and realizes that the clock is frozen at precisely midnight. Later, she meets the librarian and recognizes Mrs. Elm. She informs Nora that she is in the Midnight Library and that all books represent passageways to alternate lives.
Mrs. Elm leads her to read a book called The Book of Regrets, in which all her regrets in life are recorded. We get to understand Nora’s past by mentioning a handful of regrets. The librarian also reveals that within the books, every alternate destiny awaits. And should she feel total disappointment, she will be back at the Midnight Library.
Nora’s initial leap into change took her into a life where she stayed with Dan, running a thriving pub together. All seemed well until the discovery of Dan’s infidelity shattered her contentment, leading her back to the library.
She keeps trying new lives and coming back to the library disappointed because they all end up depressing. Her second life is as a good cat owner. However, she finds her cat still dead under the bed. After that, she lives her best friend Izzy’s dream of surfing. She experiences life near the beach without Izzy, who died in a car accident. She becomes a successful Olympic swimmer, but she discovers that her father had an affair and left Nora’s mother.
Next, she wants to be a glaciologist, her childhood dream. A bear nearly kills Nora. In this life, she meets Hugo, who catches her pretending and reveals that he is a “slider” too. Nora returns to the library after he explains quantum mechanics, which she finds interesting and disappointing.
Nora chooses music when Mrs. Elm asks what makes her happy. In this life, she sings for a world-famous band. She enjoys life before learning that her brother Joe is not alive anymore. She returns to the library, devastated by her brother’s fate, and tells the librarian she hates this process and wants to end it. When she loses her will to live, the library collapses because her root life is in danger.
Nora is told by Mrs. Elm that the lives she has requested are others’ dreams. So, Nora seeks a gentle life, and she becomes an animal shelter volunteer and Dylan’s girlfriend. Nora enjoys the slow days until she realizes Dylan deserves the real Nora, not her pretend self.
She remains dissatisfied after being an infinite version of herself. Nora tells Mrs. Elm that she’s hopeless about finding a happy life. Mrs. Elm then asks her to remember the last kind act she received, and she recalls Ash, who told her about her cat’s death.
The next second, she is married to Ash and a mother to Molly. After finally finding her dream life, Nora feels complete. She is blessed with a wonderful daughter, a successful husband, a dog named Plato, and an alive brother. Despite its near-perfection, Nora later feels she does not deserve this life because it is not hers. She prepares for the library return with a heavy heart.
Minutes later, the library collapses and catches fire, burning the books. While trying to save herself from the fire, Nora finally realizes she doesn’t want to die or live other lives. Mrs. Elm urges Nora to live and not give up. She finds one book that isn’t on fire and writes “I AM ALIVE” in it. Immediately, the library falls apart.
She wakes up in her apartment, where she attempted suicide. She then alerts her elderly neighbor, Mr. Banerjee, who calls 911 for help. Her next memory is lying on a hospital bed, telling the nurse she doesn’t want to die. Joe arrives, and they reconcile. Izzy texts her to say she will be back for good soon. The narrative concludes with her visiting Mrs. Elm in a shelter and playing chess with her.
Exploring the Novel’s Mood
The emotional landscape painted by this novel is undeniably somber. Its pages are punctuated with trigger warnings, encompassing themes of death, suicide, depression, and existential crisis. These weighty subjects elicit the reader’s empathy for Nora, who grapples with a series of profoundly melancholic events. However, as we immerse ourselves in Nora’s narrative, we, too, may find our spirits weighed down by her struggle to discover the essence of existence, despite her numerous forays into alternate lives.
Regarding the novel’s mood changes, we are treated to a whirlwind of experiences in Nora’s various roles, from the life of an inspirational Olympic swimmer to the glamour of a famous vocalist to the bustling existence of a business owner. Equally, moments of serenity, like her time as an animal shelter volunteer and her role as a wife and mother, are of note. Yet, beneath these outward transformations in Nora’s surroundings lies a persistent undercurrent of discontent and unhappiness, as poignantly expressed in the lines, “I have run out of lives. I have been everything. And yet I always end up back here. There is always something that stops my enjoyment. Always” (p.217). This results in fleeting mood shifts, with the overarching mood remaining rooted in Nora’s grim outlook on life.
Philosophical Insights and Drive
Being a philosophy graduate, Nora frequently draws upon the wisdom of prominent philosophers, including Bertrand Russell, Henry David Thoreau, Lao Tzu, and Jean-Paul Sartre, with Thoreau holding a special place in her heart. Here are some notable quotes from these philosophers that Nora references in the book:
- “But you will never truly live if you are constantly in search of the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus
- “To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three-parts dead.” – Bertrand Russell
- “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau
Throughout the narrative, Nora’s profound philosophical knowledge serves both as a source of enlightenment and a burden. It becomes evident that Nora’s struggles with the events in her life stem from her tendency to approach each experience with the depth and intensity of a philosopher, absorbing them fully and wrestling with their implications. This dichotomy between her philosophical perspective and the challenges she faces underscores the complexity of her character and the themes explored in the novel.
The Midnight Library’s enticing premise is simply irresistible; who could resist the allure of a library that grants the opportunity to explore alternate lives? As the narrative unfolds, readers delve deeper into the burden of regrets that Nora carries and gain insight into her perspective on life. The intricacies of the Midnight Library and its functioning are truly captivating. However, after turning several pages, both myself and fellow readers found the story losing its initial charm, making it challenging to maintain interest in a single sitting. This decline in engagement may be attributed to the recurring bleak scenes and the somewhat limited development of Nora’s character. On the other hand, Haig’s portrayal of these themes is likely to profoundly move readers who have struggled with depression or suicidal thoughts. Conversely, those who have not encountered such struggles may find it challenging to fully empathize with Nora’s perspective on life. On a more positive note, the novel’s intriguing and distinctive concept has earned it praise from other readers, who consider it a worthy literary work. Additionally, the inclusion of brilliant philosophical references, intriguing trivia, and valuable life lessons adds to its appeal.