I saw The Midnight Library (2020) on a random book list that popped up on my phone. It was a list of ten books that the author wished they could read again for the first time. I liked the idea of this list, and I liked some of the books on it. In addition, the premise of this novel sucked me right in. Somewhere, there is a library of books that holds every possible life you could have lived. I’ve spent many moments of my life wondering what it would be like if I’d made different choices–and wondering if I made the right choice–so I was very curious about this novel.
The book begins with one of my favorite quotes from The Bell Jar:
“I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life.” –Sylvia Plath
We meet Nora Seed in the beginning of the book, and things are not going well. She is alone and miserable. Her parents are dead, she hasn’t talked to her brother in years, she gets fired from her dead-end job, and then she finds out that her cat has died. Nora does not want to live anymore, so she writes a note and takes a bottle of pills.
When she wakes up, she’s in a weird, endless library. The only other person there is her old school librarian. The librarian informs Nora that this is her chance to see all the other lives that she could have lived. At this point, all Nora wants to do is die, but she picks up her Book of Regrets and sees everything she wishes she had done with her life.
Nora’s first three or four lives hit her biggest regrets. She wanted to know what would have happened if she hadn’t quit swimming, if she hadn’t broken off the engagement with her fiancé, if she hadn’t quit the band, and if she’d become a glaciologist. And it turned out that even though Nora may have been more “successful” in some of these lives, she wasn’t much happier.
The book continues through countless lives until Nora finds one that feels almost perfect. She learns a lot about herself, what she wants in life, and how she can obtain it:
“Of course, we can’t visit every place or meet every person or do every job, yet most of what we’d feel in any life is still available. We don’t have to play every game to know what winning feels like. We don’t have to hear every piece of music in the world to understand music. We don’t have to have tried every variety of grape from every vineyard to know the pleasure of wine. Love and laughter and fear and pain are universal currencies. We just have to close our eyes and savor the taste of the drink in front of us and listen to the song as it plays. We are as completely and utterly alive as we are in any other life and have access to the same emotional spectrum.”
I liked the idea of this book and what it stood for. I feel like it did make me more comfortable with some of my regrets or “what if’s” I’ve had in my life. But I also wasn’t enamored with reading about Nora’s many lives. Her first couple of lives satisfied my curiosity, and then I got a little bored. In addition, I tend to avoid books that deal with suicide, and I didn’t realize that suicide was a major plot point in this novel until I began reading. On the whole, I’m glad I read it, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
You can find all my reviews on my blog.