Matt Haig’s ‘The Midnight Library’ is one of those books that I have been influenced by the goodreads and Instagram to read. Most of the reviews I have seen were quite positive and on goodreads it currently has over 4 stars rating, so with that in mind, I let myself be influenced and decided to read this book. However, it left me feeling pretty indifferent to it. The overall message of the book is good and admirable, but I did not feel anything after reading it. Maybe the problem was not managing my expectations properly, but for a book that is so popular and has such high ratings, I did expect something more.
Here, I want to give all my readers a trigger warning for the topics of attempted suicide and suicidal ideation. If that is something you don’t feel comfortable reading about, please do not put yourself through that.
The novel follows the story of Nora Seed, whose life at the start of the novel, feels like it is falling apart. Her cat has just died, she got fired and it does not seem like she really has any friends or people in her life who care for her. In fact, she believes that her life is filled with one regret after another, and she tries committing suicide. This is where the idea of Midnight Library comes in, as it is explained as a place between life and death, in which Nora can read different books and thus try different lives. In most of these lives, the only difference to her real life (or root life, as it is called in the book) is fixing the one regret Nora had. However, in most of these lives, something else goes critically wrong and Nora struggles to find her footing anywhere properly. At the end, the conclusion is that Nora goes back to her root life and starts working through her issues.
For me, the premise of the novel and the inclusion of kind of sci-fi elements to it were quite interesting, but I am afraid it was not handled too well. The mechanics of the working of the Library were explained through the librarian simply telling Nora how it works. Later on, she meets another man who is going through the same journey, and he offers some more physical and philosophical musings about it. A lot of times, the message of the novel that life is worth living and that we should not try to be someone else, will feel like it is hitting you on the head. Honestly, I could not count how many times Nora has said those words or some version of them. I understand wanting your readers to understand the point of your novel, but I did not think it was really necessary to reinforce that idea every so often. While quite positive and celebrating life, this idea is not as original as the author seems to believe it is. This waters down the message to the degree in which the book becomes repetitive and dull. The writing style had potential, but after a while of reading the same points said in a different manner, I stopped caring.
When it comes to characters, besides Nora, the protagonist, I cannot really recall any of them. All of them are coming in and out Nora’s life (actually, lives) and therefore simply do not have the room to grow. Yes, this is Nora’s story, but how on Earth am I supposed to believe, as a reader, that her ex fiance or a handsome doctor next door, actually influence her life, if I know close to nothing about them? They are simply there as symbols of Nora’s regrets and how she can do better and have very little to no personality. Nora’s characterization as well was so shallow. Throughout most of the book, Nora has no progress and is nowhere closer to finding her happiness than she was three or five attempts ago. In these lives she inhabits, she does not actually get to live them, but feels like she is simply a guest, taking a space of another Nora who belongs there and who will have to deal with the outcomes of whatever ‘real’ Nora did. Most of the time, she tries trying to figure out her footing in these new lives, instead of really thinking about her life and choices. At the end, she makes a big breakthrough, but I feel like the outcome of her coming back to her root life was obvious from much earlier than the ending of the novel. Again, this ending, just like a lot of its plot was not original at all.
What really made me angry is the depiction of mental illness, or to be more precise, the way Nora ‘heals’. For a book whose protagonist is a person with diagnosed mental illness (Nora is medicated) I expected more nuanced discussion about living with the illness. Instead, it felt horribly misinformed and patronizing. Haig seems to believe that depression is caused by having regrets and that it can be healed by thinking positively. I mean, at one point, Nora suffers a panic attack and then does a Ted talk in which she talks about how we should be ourselves and follow our version of success. Spoiler alert for Haig and those thinking like him, clinical depression cannot be cured by changing your attitude. At the end of the novel, when Nora changed her attitude after trying different lives, everything else fell into its place. Yes, our attitude change can change how we see world around us, but the way it was presented in this book was so sudden it is entirely unbelievable and honestly insulting to people struggling with any kind of chronic mental illness.
At the end, I did not find a single redeeming quality of this novel. It is horribly misinformed about the issues of mental health, quite patronizing and shallow. It reads like Haig could not decide whether he wanted to write a self help book with all the motivational posters messages or a work of fiction, so he decided to write ‘The Midnight Library.’ At the end, it is entirely unsuccessful as either.
What did you think of this book? Did you read anything else by Matt Haig that you can recommend?