Book #8: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The year we opened Once Upon a Trapeze Bookstore, my goal was to read and review 100 books – this, on top of everything that goes with starting a new business, working as a full-time teacher, tutoring kids after school, and training to run a marathon . . . yes, a marathon. What was I thinking?! Life happened, as usual, only this time it landed like a sneak attack directly on top of me. Once the debris cleared, life as I knew it had evaporated. Remaining, however, were the good parts, the parts that mattered.

Serendipitously, the last novel I read in 2020, The Midnight Library, and the first book I read in 2021, The Invisible Life of Addie Larue, serve as perfect bookends to hold all those struggles, emotions, and lessons learned. I haven’t run at all in the last year, not even around the block, but I am committing to reading and reviewing 150 books in 2021. Goodreads is telling me I’m two books behind. Better get busy!

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, is the story of Nora Seed, a young woman who has been toying with the idea of suicide for awhile. She is fired, her cat gets run over, and she decides once and for all she is a drag on her family and friends and has nothing worth contributing to the world. She follows through and swallows the pills, waking to find herself in the Midnight Library, a magnificent, magical place filled with books telling every conceivable version of her life story had she made “better” choices. Sitting at the front desk is Mrs. Elm, her childhood school librarian. Mrs. Elm introduces her to the thickest, heaviest volume on the shelves, her Book of Regrets. As Nora flips through its pages, Mrs. Elm tells her she can choose any book coinciding with any regret and step inside to experience how things could have been had she followed through with the wedding, continued training for her Olympic swimming career, stayed with the band she and her brother started in their twenties, continued her graduate studies to become a glaciologist, or accepted the invitation for coffee from the kind young doctor who discovered and helped bury her cat in her backyard. The librarian hints that Nora has the power to choose to stay in whichever parallel-life finds her happiest.

Nora chooses book after book, experiencing success, fame, fortune, and love, at the same time experiencing profound sadness, loss, addiction, and still more regret. To avoid these parallel-regrets, however, she has merely to step out of one volume and into another. As Nora works her way through the shelves, her Book of Regrets gets smaller and lighter.This novel captured me from page one and held on to me through the end. It makes no secret of its message nor where Nora is heading, but that’s the point of the story – to watch this character grapple with the meaning and purpose of life from the safety of your own messy, imperfect existence. I gave it five stars, wondering, however, if other readers would find it overly sentimental or sappy. Apparently not. It was voted Goodreads Best Book of the Year and received 19,000 five-star reviews. Maybe it’s what we all needed at the end of such a challenging, to say the least, year.

I collect quotes (journals full of them) and found myself adding so many from this book, I probably should have just copied its pages and glued them all in.

“It is easy to mourn the lives we aren’t living. Easy to wish we’d developed other talents, said yes to different offers. Easy to wish we’d worked harder, loved better, handled our finances more astutely, been more popular, stayed in the band, gone to Australia, said yes to the coffee or done more bloody yoga.

It takes no effort to miss the friends we didn’t make, the work we didn’t do, the people we didn’t marry and the children we didn’t have. It is not difficult to see yourself through the lens of other people, and to wish you were all the different kaleidoscopic versions of you they wanted you to be. It is easy to regret, and keep regretting, ad infinitum, until your time runs out.

But is is not lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. It’s the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy.

We can’t tell if any of those other versions would have been better or worse. Those lives are happening, it is true, but you are happening as well, and that is the happening we have to focus on.” – Matt Haig

“. . . I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” – Henry David Thoreau