Nora Seed has lived a life of great potential - she could have been a competitive swimmer, in a signed rock band, married, or living the good life in Australia. Yet, at the age of thirty-five, she finds herself unemployed, alone, and miserable. The weight of regret lies heavy on her, along with guilt for the way she has let down so many people, causing a distance between her and those she loves. She doesn’t see the good she does, collecting medicine for an elderly neighbour or providing cheap piano lessons to a teenager that needs something to focus on to stay out of trouble. When her cat dies, it’s the last in a series of disappointments that she just can’t see her way through. She takes an overdose, but instead of finding herself in the afterlife she lands in an in-between world, The Midnight Library, where her old school librarian, Mrs Elm, explains that the library is full of all the lives Nora could have had, offering her the opportunity to see what would have happened if she’d made different decisions. If she finds the right life, she can stay there forever.
At first she tries to correct some of her biggest regrets and sees what her life would have been if she’d stayed with Dan, her ex-fiancé, hadn’t quit swimming, or left her brother’s band. In experiencing these other lives she realises that not only do they come with their own challenges, but also help her to appreciate aspects of her root life. When she enters a different life she doesn’t automatically receive the knowledge she’d have accumulated if she’d been there since birth and so she has many awkward encounters with people she doesn’t know, talks to give on subjects she hasn’t got the expertise to pull off, and histories that she’s unaware of. This naturally makes it difficult to settle into the life and leaves her feeling like an imposter. For the reader, it can offer some lighter moments, but also causes some frustration, it feels like a fatal flaw in the system. It also makes you wonder what happens to that version of Nora once our one has left. At times, she stays in her alternate life for long stretches of time, it would not be so easy to explain away any strange behaviour or the loss of memory for the period she was there.
As the number of lives lived increases she begins to lose sight of herself and wonders what it is that she really wants. There are some things that seem to stay the same no matter the life she steps into, and she begins to question if they really are different lives or if the furnishings have just changed. She comes to realise that every life has its good and bad points, there is no one perfect life. This is ultimately the message of the book, that all our lives are made up of the good and the bad, but that they are worth living. We do not control the outcomes of the choices we make and living in a way to please other people will never lead to fulfilment.
Nora is the main focus and we only see other lives through her own, but it becomes clear that many of the damaged relationships she believed were caused by her own poor choices are actually more to do with other people’s own struggles. She learns to look beyond her own regrets to see more clearly the lives of others. This also helps her to make peace with the way some of her relationships turned out with people who are no longer around to make amends. She has the opportunity to see that it’s not her fault that she has been the brunt of unkindness and that even if she’d sacrificed her own desires in favour of others’ there would still have been conflict and disappointment. It also helps her to understand why people behave the way they do, by seeing the same weaknesses recur in others she is able to get to the root of their decisions and their outcomes. We see side characters also struggling to find happiness in their varied lives, of their core nature never really shifting whatever circumstances they find themselves in.
This is an interesting read with a promising premise. The trajectory of the story is fairly predictable and a little twee at times, but the messages about self-worth and not letting regrets limit you are valuable. If this book finds you at just the right moment it could be life changing. Whether or not you need to hear that your life matters, it’s an enjoyable read and might just help you let go of any regrets that have been niggling at you.