3 min read

Book review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

It's a wonderful lie.
Book review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Larry and I were talking, the other night, about why so many of the books we were reading centered on parallel universes.

"Maybe it's because it's a new idea," Larry said, "and writers want to explore it."

"But it isn't a new idea," I argued. "Leibniz came up with the bubble universe concept in the seventeenth century." (His work, by the way, was the inspiration for the "best of all possible worlds" running gag in both Voltaire and Bernstein's Candide.)

"Maybe it's because we're finally getting to a place, technologically, where we can see the direct results of our choices," Larry said, "and so we're naturally going to start asking ourselves what might have happened if we had made other choices."

He meant it on the micro level; the fitness trackers, the finance apps, the algorithms that tell us both what to do and why we did it.

I think it has more to do with the macro. We're staring down the results of a 400-year experiment ("the modern mercantile era," Larry said, and I said "that should be a book title"), and we're starting to ask ourselves what might have happened if we had controlled different variables.

Which might be why the last two parallel universe novels we read emphasized our lack of control.

Book review: Max Barry’s The 22 Murders of Madison May
A series of bubble universes; a page-turner that pops.

These books are not The Man in the High Castle. They aren't Life After Life. They aren't even Sliding Doors. They are reassurances that no matter what we do, we remain exactly who we are.

Matt Haig's The Midnight Library – and I didn't realize, when I started reading this, that it was literally a self-help book disguised as a novel – allows a miserable thirtysomething named Nora Seed to access all of the lives she might have led, had she made different choices at key points in the narrative.

We quickly learn that this woman, who was seconds away from overdosing on antidepressants, never made a wrong choice in her life.

The boyfriend she wished she hadn't dumped? He would have turned out to be controlling and abusive.

The cat she wished she hadn't accidentally let out of her apartment? He would have died anyway. (The cat's heart was failing, and he ran out into the street to spare his owner the trauma of finding a cat corpse indoors.)

The father she wished she'd been kinder to, as a teenager? He would have dismissed her, in every version of their lives together – wait what????

It was at this point that I was pretty sure I knew how the book would end.

It was also at this point that I began to think of this book as dangerous.

Most of the major reviewers have compared this story to It's a Wonderful Life, because not only does our heroine choose her original existence, but she also wakes up to the knowledge that many of the people she meets over the course of her miserable day, from the harried mother she passes on the sidewalk to the cutie-patootie doctor who frequents her local coffee shop, think she's an important part of their routine.

The difference is that George Bailey actually did things – and the things he did made a difference.

Nora Seed needs do nothing, because the Midnight Library has already proved that nothing she does will change any of her interactions in any significant way.

She's already wonderful, in every life.

What a terrible way to make us feel better about ourselves.