Review: The Midnight Library - Matt Haig
Published: Viking Publishing, September 2020
My rating: 2/5 stars
“Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”
Upon initially finishing this book, I generously rated it three stars mostly because of the impactful subject matter, but the longer I sit with my thoughts, the more clear it becomes to me that I didn’t like this book. I realize that I’m in the vast minority with that opinion, and I’m truly happy for all the people who loved and found support in this book, but I also feel like I there are some things that need to be said contrary to all the praise.
First things first: we start our story with Nora, a young woman on the day she decides to die. Having been recently fired and having lost her cat, best friend and contact with her brother, she feels so hopeless about life that she attempts suicide. To her surprise, she finds herself waking up in a library: the library between worlds. Here, every book contains an alternative version of her life, had she made different decisions, giving her a glimpse into what might have been, but also offering her a second chance of that life. There’s only one condition: she can only stay in that life, if she’s completely happy with it.
I like Matt Haigs narrative voice. I like how accessible he made these very difficult topic in this novel, and the way he streamlined this novel. This is the kind of story that only needs a single plotline, and I’m happy that Haig focussed on that, instead of adding in unnecessary subplots that would have taken away from the primary one.
Honestly, the rest of the novel just wasn’t good to me. It was just okay. Safe. Bland. And one that has been done time and time again in different forms of media in just this exact way.
I’m trying to keep this short, so we can get to the real heart of the problem sooner:
I’ve read/watched/heard this story a million times before, and I based on the synopsis I could have written it out beat for beat for you, and I would have been 100% correct. Matt Haig does nothing original or impactful with this trope.
- “Nothing matters”
The majority of this book focusses on Nora living through her alternative lives. Unfortunately, as we known how many pages we have left (and probably how this book will end), we know none of them will stick. Therefore none of what she does during these sections matters.
Nora as a character also completely lacks any agency: she wants to be "happy", but has no concrete image of what that would be or how to achieve it, making it hard to identify with her as our "heroine."
Seriously, this book is basically actively wrenching the tears from your eyes. It tries so hard to be profound and emotional that it fell completely flat for me. The emotional beats were very “engineered”: I could practically hear the sad piano music swell as the important paragraphs arose. It’s so cheap and reminds me of the problem I have with “sick-lit”: using the suffering of a character with an illness to get cheap emotion out of an audience of able-bodied people.
When covering this type of subject matter, you know your book is going to be influential to readers who identify with it. For that reason, you have to get this right, which is why I’m extra critical of these stories. The margin of error is tiny, and well meant advise can in fact be harmful to the wrong person at the wrong time.
*SPOILER ALERT* I guess, although if you haven’t figured out the direction this book would take by now, you clearly haven’t seen as many movies/books with these themes as I have.
In the end, Nora discovers that her original life (the one she wanted to escape so badly), was her best life after all. Despite the challenges she faces, the learns to see all the good in her original life and decides to return to it. The message of “just don’t be sad and look at all the good you have” is not one that is helpful with people suffering from true depression or suicidal ideations. It’s also a very (for lack of a better term) “privileged” stance to take. Yes, Nora’s life has a lot of good: she has friends, parents, a brother, a roof over her head, money, good health, opportunities… So many people who are in a low enough place to contemplate suicide do not have many or even any of these things. Not to mention, for someone suffering from depression, none of this will matter to their well-being. Depression is an illness, NOT a choice.
“Just focus on the good” is a cheap and easy cop-out, and an insult to a large portion of the people this book pretends address.
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