Nora Seed can no longer face the missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential that define her life, and she tries to kill herself. But rather than dying, she ends up in the Midnight Library, a zone between death and life, in a building full of books that contain her alternate lives. But first, she must read her own Book of Regrets, a thick volume of panic-inducing shoulda, coulda, wouldas. Her list consists of dropping out of a rock band just as it was about to sign a recording contract, calling off the wedding to the man of her dreams, backing out of competitive swimming, being a bad cat owner, and not becoming a glaciologist. The latter niggles on Nora’s consciousness after her beloved high school librarian, Mrs. Elm, suggested it decades ago as a possible career path.
Nora, who is 35 when we meet her, has more talent than the average human, but that means more chances to miss. At the Midnight Library, she meets Mrs. Elm again, who offers her a world of parallel universes in which she can embrace lives that erase her regrets. Mrs. Elm helps her decide which books she might open first, based on the mistakes she feels are her biggest. She opens a book and is off—to the remarkable success, happiness, and fulfillment her “root life” lacked. Or not, otherwise what kind of book would this be?
The chance to relive your life and overcome perceived failures is a popular theme in movies (It’s a Wonderful Life), television (Quantum Leap) and literature (Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life). It’s a means of offering the main character a way to redefine success, happiness, and fulfillment into digestible bites. Why did Nora pass up her chance to become an Olympian with such an obvious happy ending? As we learn, it’s for good reasons, but she’s forgotten them. In her backward glance, she sees only rosy promise, not the barriers that stood in her way. She thinks she had power and control that never existed.
As Nora experiments with one life after another, author Matt Haig shows that all decisions operate within a fluid environment, creating a context that we tend to simplify in our memories. We believe we could have done things we shouldn’t or couldn’t have. In Nora’s case, parents die, friends and family disappoint, people she loves mess with her head, and fate sometimes simply stinks.
But, as she learns, the winds that swirl around her also include real love and support, which she must first recognize and then accept. Basically, Nora has to recognize that perfection has never been in her grasp.
This is a book about shedding regret by gaining perspective. It’s full of quirky plot lines, with glimpses of opportunities and potential in unexpected places and people. Nora pays attention to the characters who populate her stories, who show up in multiple lives, and realizes that her life begins when she starts looking at her people and at the small details that create meaning and kicks the blame to the side. Is happiness defined by medals and albums and quaint English pubs? Or by simple, calm contentment?
It remains midnight in the library until Nora realizes that life in general is usually a mess and always uncertain and that humans, including her, are incurably flawed. This frees her to turn away from the dark and toward her own light.
— Pat Prijatel