I haven’t really reviewed a book in a while! I figured it was time. And of course I am choosing a book that is so widely beloved right now that I feel a little like I’m raining on the parade by criticizing it. But I feel strongly enough about my experience with the novel that I decided it worth putting my ideas down. (Trigger warning: suicide ideation/attempt.)
I recently read The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. It’s the story of Nora Seed, a woman who finds herself at a crisis point in her life. She feels to have lost everything — her job, her chance at love, her cat, and, above all, her chance to make something meaningful of her life. She decides to take her own life, and attempts suicide by overdose.
She “awakes” to find herself in a library of infinite books, stuck in a perpetual midnight. She hasn’t died — she is in the liminal space between alive and passed. In this library, each book contains a story of how her life could have turned out had she made any different decision whatsoever. She can take anything she regrets in her life and go to a life where she made the opposite, or a slightly modified, choice. Infinitesimal changes, or big. Each change, as the butterfly effect says, changes the course of life in big or small ways, and those subsequent changes lead to a life unrecognizable, to a life quite literally “novel.”
Nora is met by a librarian who helps her read book she wants. Nora simply chooses by what outcome or decision she wishes were different: her choice to break up with her fiancé, or the book where she is the most famous, etc. When she opens the book, she enters into her life as Nora, but without the memories of this novel self. She has the memories of “her” self, so each jump is a difficult act of reading cues, recalibrating her empathy, and heavy use of the “fake it ’til you make it” style of adaptation. If she finds herself becoming disappointed with this new life, she fades back into the library where she is able to choose a new one.
I won’t go into too many details concerning the ending, because I don’t want to spoil it and I find it to be rather beautiful in its own way. It raises the question of what it means to say my life is “my” life and what meaning that holds for us. But I did find several things rather problematic about its message, so to do my thoughts justice, I have to go into details that require the warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.
First, a minor quibble. Haig makes several references to Nora feeling her “tight abs” or her “flat stomach” in certain inhabited lives. While finding ourselves in a different “my” body than we’re used to would absolutely be one of the things we notice about a life we are trying out, he seems to fetishize the toned, slim body in a way that feels… icky. I wish he had celebrated the softer versions of Nora’s body as much as he seemed to celebrate the fitter versions. However, I do see that I could have read more of my own insecurities and cultural frustrations into the novel — did other people see him give a much more fair treatment of and comment on a variety of Nora bodies?
Onto my biggest complaint: Haig’s presentation of mental health. In many of Nora’s lives, including the primary one, she is on anti-depressants. She always looks in the medicine cabinet of the life she is trying out to see if “that” Nora is on antidepressants, and uses that as her main cue as to whether or not this Nora is less depressed or “happier” than the primary Nora. I find this to be a reductive and almost disturbing portrayal of mental health, and a judgment of sorts on those who need such medicine to survive.
People don’t tend to go on antidepressants for purely situational reasons; they tend to go on them because their brain chemistry is struggling to provide them with the necessary dopamine they need to function and find worth in living and surviving day-to-day. Knowing whether or not someone is on antidepressants tells us very little about how “happy” they are; certainly less about how much more or less comparatively happy they are from anyone else (including their past/future/other selves). It’s an easy signal from a narrative standpoint, but I would liked to see Haig find other representations of mental wellbeing that didn’t stigmatize antidepressants and those who need them.
And I say “stigmatize” because at the end of the book Nora emerges from her suicide attempt and alternative life wanderings much happier, energetic, self-loving. She espouses a philosophy I’m not entirely against (some really beautiful and valuable insights!), but it feels so… abrupt. Abrupt for the reader. Of course for Nora, she’s lived almost countless lives by the time she goes back to her primary self, survives her suicide attempt, and embraces her life with a renewed passion (and magically several of her losses reverse themselves?!). But for the reader, at least for this reader, the change from “suicidal” to “loving herself and her life (ostensibly without the need to continue her antidepressant medication)” came across as a significantly unhealthy and dangerous suggestion. Nora realizes that her life is “hers, the only one she can live” and all of a sudden this reverses her depression? I really struggle to be charitable to Haig’s account of how a particular philosophy of living can have such a major impact on one’s mental health, especially when Nora’s experience and path to get there is obviously not available to us.
This feels like a rather weird response for me to have, because I strongly believe that our beliefs impact our mental wellbeing. So I’m not saying the idea itself — that our beliefs influence our wellbeing — is problematic, or even that Haig presents it as easy. (Nora did live countless lives before she settled into it.) Perhaps I would have been happier if Nora had woken up at the end of the novel with a more quiet, contented, curious, tentative resolve. Perhaps it is the gleeful bounce in her step that feels discordant and that does what I believe to be a disservice to the experience of clinical depression and what hard, nigh-impossible work it takes to change one’s brain chemistry through intellectual grit. Nora certainly didn’t go to cognitive behavioral therapy in any of her lives; at least, not that Haig tells us. So I remain unsettled.
One lovely message of the book (yes, I did enjoy parts of it!) was that Nora learns to trust herself a bit. While she experiences regret for some decisions she thinks she should have made differently, when she gets to see how those decisions actually would have turned out, she sees that her hesitancy was justified, or at least that she wasn’t missing any big signs that that decision was a slam-dunk in a zero-sum game. Her decisions were a result of her picking up on cues that suggested negative outcomes (even if embedded with the positive) that she turns out to prefer to avoid. There’s a reason she is disappointed by each of the supposedly “better” lives that she tries out. I love the sense of trusting herself that Haig suggests and weaves into Nora’s experience of her alternate lives and her interactions with her librarian.
I really did enjoy reading this book, regardless of the criticism I have about its portrayal of mental health. And when I say I “read” this book, what I means is that I ate it up. Gobbled it down. Read it in two days, Plato be damned. I started it when I was getting my second COVID shot (WOO!) and finished it the next day when the side effects hit me and I needed to spend a day reading and sleeping (and taking a break to eat the DQ Blizzard my sweet husband went out to get for me). Clearly, I enjoyed reading the book and enjoyed the plot enough to be utterly engulfed in it.
This enjoyment of the reading makes my rather tepid response to the plot and its messages a little … odd? disconcerting? It’s weird! I enjoyed reading the book, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to many people. There must be a word (probably German) for enjoying the act of reading itself, even if the content doesn’t live up to the reading experience. Does that make sense? I think Twilight was the same. I gobbled that book even while realizing it was garbage. Seriously, someone find me this word. I will send you delicious goodies from Hawai’i.
This is not at ALL to say that I think this novel is garbage. I just had a much more complicated experience of reading it than other people I’ve heard from. Sometimes that complicated experience is even more fun, because it forces me to think and to write about what all these hitches and catchings in my gut are trying to say.
I’d love to hear what you all thought about the novel. Am I being too harsh? Too off-base with my concerns?