3 out of 5 stars
A strangely calm existential crisis.
Thirty-something Nora Seed is miserable in her life, so she decides to end it. But before she can reach the great beyond, Nora is waylaid in a netherworld library full of autobiographies – her autobiographies. Each book is a different version of what could have been her life: every decision changed, every regret reversed leads to a new story. Nora is gifted, at this critical juncture of being nearly dead by her own hand, the opportunity to try on these alternate lives for size.
I like this idea in theory. I also have big issues with it.
The idea of getting to try all the lives you might have had is romantic and fun. Remember Sliding Doors? Lovely. Groundhog Day? Infuriating. Peggy Sue Got Married? No, you’re not old enough for that one. The idea of a life like Cher’s closet from Clueless, where you model all the outfits in an adorable montage, is dreamy. But this is suicide, and it feels like Nora’s attempt is rewarded. Yes, she’s clearly desperate and perhaps one of these other lives is all that can save her, for Nora is worth saving. She’s worth saving in her real, original life too – and I guess that’s the point. Can she learn this truth? The way this story skips right to suicide, as if that’s the natural logical step, relegates it to a plot device. There’s little build up to this extreme action. Depression is a real and crippling illness. That some are driven to consider suicide should not be treated as lightly as this book treats Nora.
Perhaps, though, this hits the issue of suicide right on its head. It isn’t up to the reader if Nora seems sad enough to kill herself, whether she’s tried enough, or if things aren’t really that bad. Ultimately, it’s Nora’s decision. That she chooses to take action on this, to end her life rather than to improve it, frustrated (even angered) me as a reader. I cannot imagine how one must feel if confronted with such a scenario in real life.
The lives Nora visits are interesting. Some are better or worse, different or the same. Like everyone who believes they were famous/important in a past life, a few of Nora’s potential lives are very high-profile. I enjoyed the idea of all the things she could have been, but of course Nora carries the same deep-seated issues into each of her outcomes. The world around her changes, but she is essentially the same person in each of them. You are who you are, and you have some control – and responsibility – around that.
Ultimately, this book feels gentle and kind, giving Nora a chance to see if different really would have been better. But the whimsical tone is a bit out of sync with the seriousness of the subject matter. I wish Nora could have arrived at the Midnight Library for a different reason, or before reaching such a critical point. Of course, then she wouldn’t have needed it badly enough for it to appear.