Happy Tuesday, bibliophiles!
I’ve had this book on my radar for a few years now, but I wanted to read it after the ocean of hype died down. I forgot about it for a while, and I found a copy at my college’s library, and figured that it might be worth a try—I read The Humans, also by Matt Haig, and thought it was decent, so I decided to take a stab. I lowered my expectations to average from all of the hype, but The Midnight Library ended up being even worse than I thought—insultingly un-nuanced and a wholly frustrating read.
Enjoy this week’s review!
Nora Seed has reached what seems to be a dead end in her life. All of her childhood dreams never came to fruition, and now she’s stuck in her thirties with nowhere to go. But after she attempts to take her own life, Nora finds herself in the Midnight Library, where every book on the endless shelves contains an alternate life—lives where she pursued different dreams, different boyfriends, and every other imaginable outcome. As she travels through a multitude of alternate realities, Nora must come to terms with herself and how she wants to live her life—full of regrets, or full of hope?
TW/CW: suicide/suicidal ideations, animal attack, loss of a loved one, depression, panic attacks, animal death, substance abuse, cancer
A recurring thought that came to me while reading The Midnight Library was that it was like if you sucked every ounce of nuance and complexity out of Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. I know full well that Everything came out two years after this novel, but my point still stands. In the abstract, the message of The Midnight Library was good, but it had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, which made for an exceedingly unpleasant reading experience.
The Midnight Library is a case study in the effect of good or bad execution of a story idea. If you have a good idea but don’t execute it well, the idea itself gets bogged down in all of the structural flaws of the writing itself. The message that Matt Haig tried to get across was a good one—focusing on living your life, not getting bogged down with regrets, and giving yourself a chance to change—but it was so ham-handed in its delivery that all of the nuance (of which there was SO much potential) was erased entirely. It was so clear that The Midnight Library was trying to say something, but without any complexity, it ended up spitting out nothing that we haven’t heard before.
For instance, in one life, Nora Seed is a world-famous rockstar selling out arena shows all around the world. However, as Nora progresses through this alternate timeline, she realizes that this alternate self is feeling empty inside, and that fame has left her a barren shell of what she once was. That’s all well and good, and it’s a good message that fame does not automatically equal happiness. But at the end of the chapter, this message was digestibly packaged into a short platitude, right above Nora’s hypothetical follower count on social media. It was almost insulting how it was delivered—what was the point of that when Haig showed it through his writing just a page before? Even if you’re not a writer, if you’re ever taught about writing in school, “show, don’t tell” is one of the first principles that you’re taught. As a reader, it feels insulting to one’s intelligence: I got the message just fine, why be that redundant and blatantly obvious?
Furthermore, a lot of the potential lives, even though they were neatly and obviously packaged to the reader to teach them a lesson, ended up contributing nothing to the plot. When they did contribute, the message was reiterated by the all-knowing librarian, as if I’m watching a children’s show, each episode ending with an “and what did we learn today, kids?” kind of message. The Midnight Library isn’t all that long of a book, but a good quarter of the misadventures through Nora’s alternate lives didn’t serve any purpose, even though that was the obvious intent.
Lastly—Matt Haig isn’t at fault for this first part, but dear lord, do not let the synopsis fool you. This is not a feel-good book. The inciting incident for The Midnight Library is Nora attempting suicide, and that got glossed over so much in the marketing of the book. For the first part of the book, I feel like Nora’s mental health issues, although they aren’t explicitly named, were dealt with respectfully, but once it got to the end of the book, it took a turn for the worse. As if by magic, Nora’s depression is cured, and she now has the will to live again, after glimpsing all of her alternate lives. It really felt harmful—yes, this is a sci-fi/fantasy book, but depression and other mental health issues don’t magically disappear after a romp through alternate realities. Downplaying something as serious as depression and suicide really didn’t sit right with me, and it felt like the ending of the book erased something that should have been acknowledged far more in this book.
All in all, a disappointing book that decided to take its well-intentioned message and knock you over the head with it, thereby erasing all attempts at nuance and complexity. 2 stars.
The Midnight Library is a standalone, but Matt Haig is also the author of The Humans, How to Stop Time, The Radleys, and several other books.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!