A Multiverse of Possibilities: A Review of Matt Haig's 'The Midnight Library'

Dive into our review of 'The Midnight Library' by Matt Haig, a philosophical journey through alternate lives and existential questions.

Haig, Matt. The Midnight Library: A Novel. United States, HarperCollins, 2020.

Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library” thoughtfully explores life’s choices and regrets. The story centers on Nora Seed, a former philosophy graduate student who now works as a music tutor and store clerk. Nora lives in Bedford, a small town north of London, and is navigating a series of personal tragedies. After contemplating suicide, Nora discovers the Midnight Library, a multiverse realm where she explores the numerous lives she could’ve lived.
How Giphy Imagines the Midnight Library

Haig deftly weaves in meticulous details that grow increasingly significant throughout the narrative. He introduces an array of alternate lives for Nora – a rock star, an Olympic swimmer, a glaciologist, and more, imbuing each with unique existential questions. The novel employs elements of fantasy to pose a provocative question to readers: What if we could live out all our 'what ifs?'

Haig peppers the story with philosophical musings, Nora’s favorite being Henry David Thoreau, inspiring readers to contemplate their own life choices and regrets. The novel offers up copious philosophical tidbits, as this one from Thoreau, “It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. You don't have to understand life. You just have to live it.” And this pithy, funny, but pointed quote from David Hume, “But the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”

Although the novel concludes predictably, it doesn't offer a perfect fairytale ending. Instead, it suggests that embracing our imperfect lives, with all their small decisions and moments, is the key to fulfillment. For example, Nora has a cat, named Voltaire, who, in her root life, dies on the same day that Nora contemplates suicide. Nora feels responsible for the cat’s death, and carries the guilt of her pet’s passing with her. But — she realizes, when she goes to the Midnight Library (and I don’t want to give away spoiler-y details) that her cat was not hit by a car, as she had previously thought, and therefore, her cat hadn’t died out of neglect — Voltaire had reached the end of his life, and like what cats do, sought a private, outside place to expire (which happened to be the street, where her neighbor Ash finds him). The scene was a gut punch to me because I think it highlights an important lesson — whatever guilt you carry, why do you carry it? More often than not, there are many reasons for the “why” — that often have nothing to do with you. Of course, if Nora Seed had been a haughty pet abuser, it would be a different novel — but she wasn’t. In her root life, she was the best thing to ever happen to Voltaire. And she didn’t even realize it.

When it comes to the meaning of life, there are no definitive answers. And Haig plays a jaunty game of not trying to appear as if his story is the panacea to human suffering and regret. There is a bit of the notion that the universe doesn’t care if you put out the cat food or not — in the extreme working of things, the universe continues to expand, whether humans exist or not. That’s the big, macro answer to the meaning of life. But of course, humans are not quasars, and we have a pesky thing called consciousness — we are little, finite, and we can reflect on our being in the world. Perhaps this is what Montaigne meant when he wrote, “to philosophize is to learn how to die.”

While 'The Midnight Library' may not provide a definitive answer to life's meaning, it offers a rewarding exploration of character. As Mrs. Elm, the novel’s librarian and Nora’s mentor, reveals, pay attention to the small details, the granular decisions one makes. Readers will grow attached to Nora and root for her happiness, a testament to Haig’s skillful character development. I highly recommend this novel to anyone seeking a meaningful, philosophical journey. It earns a solid 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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