Thirtysomething Nora Seed has failed at everything in life. None of the careers she’d envisioned for herself have panned out. Her relationships have faltered and fizzled out. Her cat has died. Her brother is no longer speaking to her. Shortly before midnight she decides to end her life but instead of heaven or hell, Nora finds herself in a large library, where it’s midnight forever and every book offers a look into what-if: what if Nora had kept up her rigorous swimming training? What if she had become a climate specialist, like she wanted as a child? What if she’d gotten married instead of leaving her boyfriend at the altar? As Nora tries on her various alternative lives, she learns valuable lessons along the way. Or something.
The Midnight Library was a fast read for me. I read the first fifty or so pages during a train journey back from Amsterdam, when I was exhausted from hobbling around the city all day, and the rest during a sunny afternoon in my backyard the next day. It’s entertaining enough and Nora is at least semi-endearing. And the premise of the novel is intriguing, because don’t we all wonder what would have happened if we’d only done this or not done that? Regret, the novel seems to say, is pointless.
I agree with the book on that, sort of – regret can make us look back and if we’re smart, we’ll learn not to do it again – except that unlike us, Nora does get to go back and live her previous lives. I don’t think I’m going to spoil anything when I tell you that Nora isn’t really any happier in her other lives. It’s annoying, but predictable.
It’s not until the conclusion of the novel that it truly began to grate for me. Without giving too much away, the message seems to be that if we just embrace who we are and accept our true selves, then happiness will automatically follow. It’s clunky and trite and often untrue, and I’m knocking a star off of this just for that.
When I read it I was reminded of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which operates on roughly the same principle (girl is born and dies, girl is born, something changes, she dies again but later, and so forth). I loved that novel, which is why I was interested in reading this one too. I wish I hadn’t bothered; Life After Life is a much better book. This one is predictable as a story and downright clunky as a self-help manual.