A small cast of characters reappears in many of Nora’s lives. Her brother, her parents, her best friend are almost always present. She sometimes crosses paths with a man she came close to marrying. As she plays through her own myriad possibilities, the impact of her choices on each of these characters is also profound; their lives are as altered by Nora’s decisions as her own. Even peripheral characters from her root life are transformed.
As in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” Nora appears to be the X factor in all these changes. The supporting cast is also making different choices, but these are largely posited as responses to Nora’s own altered actions. Only Nora’s choices feel determinative.
The issue of the many Noras temporarily displaced from their own root lives is somewhat troubling. Where do they go in the interim? If/when Nora finds the life in which she will stay, what will become of the Nora whose life that actually is? Answers are hinted at, but the issue is not directly addressed. The conundrum at the heart of the book is the implication that our Nora is the real Nora and the other lives all variations on that first life, the root life, rather than equally valuable universes filled with equally valuable people. In the infinity of the multiverse, surely there are other Noras also trying on our Nora’s life from time to time, displacing her as they do so. The universe is full of infinite possibility, but the story here remains tightly focused on the internal life of a single woman and all her might-have-beens.
It can be hard to keep a reader’s energy invested in a depressed and somewhat listless character, but Nora is smart and observant; she remains good company. She’s studied philosophy and has a particular affection for the American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. The book is all the richer, as any book would be, for the inclusion of several of his quotes: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams” and “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
There is likewise a danger that such a recursive plotline will tire the reader. But here, too, the book succeeds. At just the right moment, not too soon and not too late, Nora makes her final decisive move, taking us into the last section of the book. The ending is satisfying but not surprising. By the time it comes, in fact, only one choice still seems possible.
The narrative throughout has a slightly old-fashioned feel, like a bedtime story. It’s an absorbing but comfortable read, imaginative in the details if familiar in its outline. The invention of the library as the machinery through which different lives can be accessed is sure to please readers and has the advantage of being both magical and factual. Every library is a liminal space; the Midnight Library is different in scale, but not kind. And a vision of limitless possibility, of new roads taken, of new lives lived, of a whole different world available to us somehow, somewhere, might be exactly what’s wanted in these troubled and troubling times.