October Book Discussion: The Midnight Library

SarasaSarasa Shipmate
This month's pick is The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. You can read a bit more about it here.
It's a very easy read, though the themes are pretty big. I certainly found it very enjoyable, and I hope you do too. It should be available in bookshops, libraries and on Kindle etc.
As usual I'll post some questions on or around the 20th.

Comments

  • I read that a couple of months ago, although have since given away my copy. I might look for it in my online library, but either way I will follow the discussion and see what I remember about it ...
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Picking up a copy tomorrow.
  • MiliMili Shipmate
    I have started reading it as we are still in lock down with time to spare. I like books and movies about parallel lives and seeing what changes due to a different choice and am enjoying it so far.
  • Just downloaded it from the library.
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    I read it awhile ago and mostly enjoyed it with one caveat which I will bring up when we get to discussing it!
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Started it last night. Found the first forty or so pages rough given a recent event in our family. I am enjoying the premise.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Binge read yesterday. Thirty pages to go.
  • Read this during Lockdown and loved it - although there was some ugly crying at some bits.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    Finished it last night. Still processing.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I'll be posting some questions up tomorrow. There may be some spoilers so don't look until you've finished the book.
  • Gracious RebelGracious Rebel Shipmate
    edited October 19
    Read it recently so may join in this one .....
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Purgatory Host, Epiphanies Host
    Almost finished and hoping to join the discussion.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    edited October 20
    Here are some questions. As always feel free to add your own.

    1. For fantasy to work you need to be convinced by the world created by the author. Were you convinced by the Midnight Library?

    2. Did you have a favourite among the lives Nora lived? Were there any you thought she should have stuck with.

    3. What did you think of the ending when in a George Bailey (It's A Wonderful Life) moment she sees what would have happened to some people that were important to her if she wasn't there.

    4. Do you think she she will get together with Ash in this life?

    5. Have you anything in your life (that you are willing to share) when you wonder what would have happened if you'd made a different choice?

    6. When not writing Matt Haig does a lot of work on mental health issues. Do you think think this book helps raise awareness of these issues?
  • MiliMili Shipmate


    1. For fantasy to work you need to be convinced by the world created by the author. Were you convinced by the Midnight Library?

    I don't know if convinced of the world is the way I would describe it, but given that there is a preexisting genre of books where people experience different lives based on choices I found the story line familiar and therefore the fantasy elements did not distract me from the story.

    2. Did you have a favourite among the lives Nora lived? Were there any you thought she should have stuck with.

    I liked the arctic glacier expert life and the one in which she married Ash and had a daughter. The one where she worked at the animal shelter seemed promising until we found out her boyfriend put his dogs' needs before Nora's!

    3. What did you think of the ending when in a George Bailey (It's A Wonderful Life) moment she sees what would have happened to some people that were important to her if she wasn't there.

    Even though it is unoriginal, I was hoping she would go back to her original life. Otherwise the book would almost be condoning self harm. I didn't mind the familiar story line and was happy it showed an ordinary, even difficult life, was worth living and had possibilities and opportunities.

    4. Do you think she she will get together with Ash in this life?

    If the book continued I think she would have got together with Ash as they seemed well suited in the life she was married to him. However I like that it was okay for her to go back to her normal life and that being single wasn't seen as a tragedy (as a single woman I appreciated that the book showed that single or married lives have the positives and negatives, rather than being a typical happily ever after romance).

    5. Have you anything in your life (that you are willing to share) when you wonder what would have happened if you'd made a different choice?

    I lived in London for a short time on a working holiday and considered staying. I don't regret deciding to come back to Australia to live, but sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I had stayed in the UK.

    6. When not writing Matt Haig does a lot of work on mental health issues. Do you think think this book helps raise awareness of these issues?
    [/quote]

    I think my generation and younger and probably a bit older as well (I am in my early 40s) are already pretty aware of mental health issues as people are more comfortable discussing mental health these days and lots of fiction and popular non-fiction covers the same themes.

  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Purgatory Host, Epiphanies Host
    Many thanks for the thoughtful questions @Sarasa.

    At the end of the book I looked again at the epigraph at the beginning, from Sylvia Plath. A dark choice, because we know how Plath's own story ended. I was reminded that Plath has another vision of life choices that is better known:

    “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor..."

    In this latter passage, Plath can't choose between options and they ripe figs begin to shrivel and fall from the tree. The dilemma of choice is itself what paralyses her.

    It always interests me when a male author (Haig identifies as cis-het) chooses to adopt a female persona (Nora Seed). It was successful in one way although it struck me that given the big ideas in the fiction, the stories and 'lives' were perhaps a little thin. Some powerful insights and moving moments but the lives felt interchangeable at times even if that was the guiding schema. Still musing over other questions ...
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Here are my answers.

    1. For fantasy to work you need to be convinced by the world created by the author. Were you convinced by the Midnight Library?
    I found the whole idea entrancing, so I wasn't too bothered by the bits where I wasn't sure if he was sticking to his plan for the world. For instance Voltaire (the cat) was dead in all the worlds, but in one Nora's choices meant her dad was still alive.

    2. Did you have a favourite among the lives Nora lived? Were there any you thought she should have stuck with.
    I think she needed to go back to her original life and make it work, and I'm glad she did. The last life, the one where she was married to Ash, sounded lovely, I wonder if she had have gone out for that coffee that's what she would have really been living. I rather liked the one where she was a Californian wine producer.

    3. What did you think of the ending when in a George Bailey (It's A Wonderful Life) moment she sees what would have happened to some people that were important to her if she wasn't there.
    Again I really enjoyed that bit, but then It's a Wonderful Life is one of my favourite films. The only bit of it I don't like is that Mary in the film becomes an up-tight spinster librarian when she doesn't marry George. I'm so glad Haig had a positive librarian character in this book. School libraries are important places for certain children who don't quite fit in at school so it was good to have that acknowledged.

    4. Do you think she she will get together with Ash in this life?
    I'm not sure if I want her to or not. I liked the way he was ever so slightly annoying. I'm sure they may end up going out for a bit, bit I'm not sure if he is the love of her life, or if she needs one.

    5. Have you anything in your life (that you are willing to share) when you wonder what would have happened if you'd made a different choice?
    I too turned down a night out with a nice guy when I was in my mid-twenties as I'd had a horrible cold and a hard day at work. I always wonder what would have happened if I'd gone, as he never asked again even though I showed I was interested.
    Quite a few things in my life, were presumably not my choice to make. If I hadn't met the measles virus when I was five which lead to my deafness, would things have been different. That seems more like Atkinson's Lif after Life territory.

    When not writing Matt Haig does a lot of work raising awareness of mental health issues. Do you think think this book helps raise awareness of these issues an
    I agree people are more open about mental health issues than they were when I was young (I'm in my late sixties). As a child there was lots of whispered conversations about people's mothers who'd ended up in mental homes and most people weren't very sympathetic.

    Interesting about whether a man can write about a woman and vice versa. I think the thinness is probably more Haig's style than anything else. The protagonist of How to Stop Time is male, and his character is very similar to Nora's.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    1. For fantasy to work you need to be convinced by the world created by the author. Were you convinced by the Midnight Library?
    On the whole, yes. I don’t read much fantasy so it seems a novel idea, an intriguing one, even if as some others note it may not be entirely original.

    2. Did you have a favourite among the lives Nora lived? Were there any you thought she should have stuck with.
    The arctic explorer one seemed interesting and to be playing to her strengths – it could have worked, I felt, though introducing Hugo in this section rather derailed it. I foud it interesting that the reason she reluctantly rejected the Cambridge philosophy lecturer life (or did it reject her?) was that she felt she hadn’t earned it, it had come too easily, rather than she didn’t want it.

    3. What did you think of the ending when in a George Bailey (It's A Wonderful Life) moment she sees what would have happened to some people that were important to her if she wasn't there.
    Mr Banerjee’s fate seems to have particularly affected her; that without her around he’d had to go into a home. It’s logical within the premise Haig has set up, and I found it rather moving.

    4. Do you think she she will get together with Ash in this life?
    It looks possible – they seemed to get on well in the Cambridge philosophy lecturer life.

    5. Have you anything in your life (that you are willing to share) when you wonder what would have happened if you'd made a different choice?
    Marrying an Australian was always likely to see me end up in Australia, so that was a choice I made. But I do wonder how life would have turned out had my husband found a job in the UK and we’d settled there. When I go back to the UK it seems more alien each time (not meant rudely, just further away from my normal life) and had I stayed many things about me would be different. But spending years in the Pacific was definitely serendipity - the chance came to us, though I suppose I could have refused.
  • NenyaNenya Shipmate
    I read the book a while ago; thoroughly enjoyed it and found it thought-provoking at the time but don't remember enough about it to contribute usefully now, sorry.

    However, I find @Marama 's question 5 really interesting and wonder if it would make an interesting separate thread? I think Heaven would be a good place for it and am happy to start it, unless someone else would prefer to or others think it a bad idea?
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    Sounds like a good idea @Nenya
  • TrudyTrudy Heaven Host, 8th Day Host
    I am also in the position of my reading having been long enough ago that I've forgotten some of the specifics, though overall I did enjoy reading the book.

    1. For fantasy to work you need to be convinced by the world created by the author. Were you convinced by the Midnight Library?

    I thought it worked really well as a premise. I love books that play with the concept of peope living multiple possible lives. Someone's already mentioned Atkinson's Life After Life, which for me is the gold standard in this area; I've read others that worked less successfully in my opinion, like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells. In a similar category of fantasy I'd put stories of people who are living somehow outside the normal timestream, like Matt Haig's own How to Stop Time and one I've just read and absolutely loved: V.E. Schwab's The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. In various ways they all seem to answer the question: What is the value of a single, limited human life? The Midnight Library makes it all more explicit by allowing Nora to choose amongst the available lives.
    2. Did you have a favourite among the lives Nora lived? Were there any you thought she should have stuck with.

    This and the two following questions are where the time that has passed since I've read the book do me a disservice because there's a lot of the specifics about her various lives that I can't remember. I was struck by the quite obvious fact that every life, even the most ideal, had its flaws, and some of the lives where she had spent years mourning a missed opportunity and thinking everything would have been great if she'd taken that other path, might actually have turned out to have quite a lot of negative things in them.

    5. Have you anything in your life (that you are willing to share) when you wonder what would have happened if you'd made a different choice?

    Yes! In 1991 I took a year off teaching, gave up the job I had at the time, and moved back home to do my MA. During that year I started dating my now-husband, but I wasn't thinking of it as a serious relationship because I fully intended to move away again at the end of that year. One of the jobs I applied for was a one-year position in a school in Galway, Ireland. I had visited Ireland once briefly, and had the romanticized idea of it that a lot of North Americans of vaguely Irish descent have, and thought if I could live there for a year it would be the most incredible experience.

    I sent in my application by mail, and one day I came home from class to a phone message taken by my aunt, who I was living with, that "somebody from Ireland" had called for me, and hadn't left a number, but he would call back. I was wild with excitement and waited for a return call but he never called back, and in those pre-internet days I couldn't find a number to call him at. He might just have been calling to say that the position was taken, for all I know, but I always thought of it as a missed opportunity for what might have been a grand adventure.

    Though in the grand scheme of things, I wonder how much it mattered? I ended up taking a job in another Canadian province which only lasted one year, after which I was offered a permanent position back home. I moved back, married my boyfriend, and have never lived anywhere else. Odds are good that, since the job in Ireland was only for a year, had I gotten it the exact same scenario would have played out, except that I'd have had the experience of living in Ireland -- but I likely would have ended up living much the same life (unless some handsome Irishman I never met had wooed me away from my then-boyfriend ... but as the marriage has worked out very well for 26 years, I'm glad that didn't happen!)
    6. When not writing Matt Haig does a lot of work on mental health issues. Do you think think this book helps raise awareness of these issues?

    I think it does, although I don't know if it tells anyone anything they didn't know before about mental health.

    Having read and loved two previous Matt Haig novels, and liked this one but not quite as much, I do wonder if this is the book where he let the sense of purpose -- of the message he was trying to convey -- overtake the importance of story. With both the other books, especially The Humans which I absolutely adored, I felt the message (essentially, "What gives a human life value?" which I think is his recurring theme) was conveyed through the medium of a strong and engaging plot. Particularly towards the end of The Humans, I was almost breathless, turning pages, trying to figure out how he could possible resolve this story. It worked brilliantly for me on both a plot and a thematic level.

    In The Midnight Library, the thematic message was very strong, but the plot element felt weak. As soon as I knew what the book's premise was, I thought, "Well, obviously the resolution will be that Nora ends up choosing to go back to her current life and try to live it as well as possible, because that's the only ending that makes sense thematically." So I never got fully invested in the plot or any of her other lives, though I enjoyed reading about them, because I felt from the beginning there was only one way it could possibly be resolved. For me, that somewhat diminshed the pleasure of the reading experience, because there was no strong engagement with plot to drive me forward. I thought it would have been a better book if the ending weren't so obvious from the beginning, but that might just be my quibble. Anyone else feel that way?
  • MarthaMartha Shipmate
    @Trudy Yes, I agree with you. I haven't read any of Matt Haig's other books, and I found this one ok but not amazing. Once it got past the obvious choices for her to make, it was almost just filling time before she realises that her first life is where she's meant to be.
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Purgatory Host, Epiphanies Host
    I'm also in agreement, @Trudy. Matt Haig's 2015 Reasons to Stay Alive was IMO a very helpful book with piercing insights into living with recurring bouts of severe depression, so I was hoping for more on Nora's depression and how even in other, better lives depression darkens the reality.

    What has stayed with me was that chilling countdown of hours to the suicide attempt at the beginning. That cumulative despair and incremental worsening as small events, disappointments, rejections and losses add up to the decision to die.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    1. For fantasy to work you need to be convinced by the world created by the author. Were you convinced by the Midnight Library?

    The Midnight Library had a dream like quality. The premise was intriguing but most of the lives lived did not have sufficient flesh attached to them. They began to feel like “this is the life in which X goes wrong” rather than vignettes in and of themselves.

    2. Did you have a favourite among the lives Nora lived? Were there any you thought she should have stuck with.

    The author did not want us to be rooting for her sticking with any life. That was the setup. I probably enjoyed most the one in which she was a university professor since I have been kicking around universities for 40 years.

    3. What did you think of the ending when in a George Bailey (It's A Wonderful Life) moment she sees what would have happened to some people that were important to her if she wasn't there.

    The ending was telegraphed, didactic and entirely anticipated.

    4. Do you think she will get together with Ash in this life?

    Maybe but who cares? ;^). The author does not seem to want us to do so since he has made his point.

    5. Have you anything in your life (that you are willing to share) when you wonder what would have happened if you'd made a different choice?

    What if I had finished my doctorate? What if I had married someone else? What if I had not accepted my initial job in Student Services 27 years ago?

    6. When not writing Matt Haig does a lot of work on mental health issues. Do you think this book helps raise awareness of these issues?

    I don’t think so. There was only a superficial treatment of her mental health.

    I liked the premise; I just don’t think the author delivered on a solid novel.

  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    I've liked most of the books by Matt Haig I've read, but I don't think of him as a particularly heavyweight author, but an enjoyable one all the same. I didn't like The Humans much though my husband, son and a few of you did, so it must be me. My son recommended The Last Family in England, and warned me it was a bit sad. Don't read it if you have a Labrador is all I can say. I don't but I know one rather like the narrator of the book
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