It’s a Wonderful Life with parallel lives.
Plot: Nora Seed is depressed. Suicide ideation depressed. In a matter of a day, she loses her pretty crummy job, her cat, and a connection to a neighbor she thought was a sort of friend. So late that night, she takes a lot of pills and waits for the end. She closes her eyes and when they open, which is already a surprise, she finds herself in a vast library staffed by her old school librarian. And the books are glimpses into the other lives of Nora Seed. A Nora that pursued athletics, or moved away from home, or committed to a man she let go. So she opens these books and steps into the lives of the Noras she regretted not being. Shenanigans ensue.
This book falls into the category of self-help fiction. Think Eat, Pray, Love, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Person approaching middle age full of regrets, makes a drastic, ill-thought decision just for the sake of things being different, and through this decision, learns a valuable lesson about being present in one’s life, taking chances, and being true to yourself.
As far as these books go, this is a pretty good one. I think it fails to have broad application because of just how many options Nora has shut out of her life. Rock star, Olympic athlete, marine biologist. I get that since Nora is supposed to be a stand in for so many people and therefore needs to have a wide range of possible successes to capture the possible things that the reader might have hoped for as a young person, but it has the effect of making Nora seem like a whiny privileged person who, despite having absolutely every door open to her, messed up her life and now wants not only sympathy but the right to steal the life of another version of her that was less passive throughout her life. Maybe because the plot was so predictable, I spent a lot of the time reading it fixating on the mechanisms of her travel through Noraverses and it just seemed like a wildly unethical thing to jump into the life of another person and do what you want with it. She did some really out of character stuff in a lot of those lives that the Noras that actually live there are going to have a hell of a time cleaning up.
I think the thing I valued most about the book is its honest, unflinching exploration of depression and the ways in which it can result in chronic self sabotage. Media generally uses mental illness as a way of humanizing an otherwise impossibly perfect person (Sherlock Homes, Monk, House, etc, etc). People at the very top of their field who suffer from an illness that is more often than not a diagnosable case of “asshole-itis”. It’s quite rare for fiction to instead explore the lives of people whose mental illness has stopped them from pursuing their dreams, even if it’s just by whispering to them that they don’t deserve better. Sending the message that it’s never being too late to craft a life you are satisfied with and proud of is I think a very valuable one. I suppose I just wish Haig had tried less to be all things to all people, thereby cheapening the story into something that is mostly generic and unremarkable.
A couple of other notes – Haig is, from what I can tell, a man. I have enough chips on my shoulder about men writing female characters to furnish an IKEA warehouse, but Nora feels familiar to me. She’s not only a well developed character, she reminds me of many women I’ve known. I did not want to stab Haig for doing us girls dirty and I really, really appreciate that. Also, some comments on goodreads say that the narrator isn’t good. I disagree. The narration is a bit lifeless, yes, but Nora has been suffering from severe chronic depression and is in the midst of a massive crisis, so it seems a little odd to ask her to be chipper. That said, if you don’t like muted narration, it might be easier to stay plugged in by sticking to the text.