Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Midnight Library: When All the Books Are Your Story

 I don't think I'm the only reader who finds herself drawn to books with "library" or "bookstore" in the title--and there are plenty. My next month's book club read is The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles, but this week, I finished The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, which has a most unusual library.

As the book opens, the protagonist Nora is having more than a bad day. As the narrator reveals, hours before Nora wants to die, her cat Voltaire is found dead, her boss at String Theory lets her go, and she learns her brother was in town without letting her know. Her attempt to take her own life turns out differently from the nothingness she may have anticipated. Instead, she finds herself in an unusual library, staffed by Mrs. Elm, the high school librarian who had been kind to her. Nora learns that every book, all green, is the story of a life she might have lived, had she made a single different choice.

Mrs. Elm gives Nora a look at the book of her regrets--a painful experience--and then facilitates her book choices that let her explore all the roads not taken: What if she had not quit competitive swimming? What if she hadn't left the Labyrinth, the band she had started with her brother Joe and his friend Ravi? What if she hadn't called off her wedding just days before while grieving over her mother's death? Indeed, what if she had become a glaciologist?

Haig deftly creates suspense for the reader as he places Nora in her alternate lives--in medias res--with no idea what has happened to this version of her days even minutes before she enters the scene. She learns to pick up clues to her life, often causing those closest to her to assume she has some kind of memory problem. The concept around which the novel is built, the butterfly effect, may not be a totally new idea in literature, but Haig delivers an entertaining and thought-provoking novel that suggests that there is no perfect life. Life, at its best, is messy.


Monday, March 8, 2021

Anachronism as Plot Sequence: Oona out of Order

 I don't mind a gimmick in a novel if it is crafted well and if it works. Shifts back and forth between place and time are part of the challenge and charm of a good book.

Margarita Montimore's novel Oona Out of Order is based on the unlikely premise that a young woman finds herself living one year  at a time but out of sequence. With a January 1 birthday, each New Year's Eve as midnight strikes, she finds herself on another January 1. 

In the opening chapter, she's celebrating her upcoming 19th birthday at a party with Dale, the love of her life. They're in a band together with an offer to open for a bigger band in the coming year. She is torn between the opportunity and a year in Europe she's planned with her decidedly square best friend.

Moving from 19 to her forties is quite a shock. Some version of herself has the presence of mind to leave a letter for whoever shows up in the coming year. She finds most of the letters. In the first time travel she arrives in a splendid house--hers--with her mother and her assistant, the only two people who know her real story.

Along the way, she finds love and marriage but with the ominous foresight to know they won't last, but not why. For all the times we have wished we could go back in time, "knowing what I know how," Oona's story suggests it might not help at all.


A Sequel to the New York Times' Modern Love


I am an avid reader of the newspaper. The real newspaper, not the online substitute. My roommate Susan and I even subscribed to the Tennessean when we were living in the dorm in 1975-76. The delivery guy set in on our windowsill.

I read with scissors and a pen. Monday through Saturday, I read through and then finish the Sudoku, crossword, and cryptogram. On Sundays now, I get the Tennessean  and the New York Times: More puzzles and more word games, the NYT Book Review. Sometimes it takes me most of the week to get to all the parts I like. 

I've been clipping favorite columns for years, which  explains the four-drawer file cabinets in the closet downstairs. Among those favorite columns is the piece by Amy Krouse Rosenthal printed in the "Modern Love" section of the Sunday Times in March 2017 entitled "You May Want to Marry My Husband. Written as a dating site ad, Amy published what was essentially a love letter to her husband as she experienced stage 4 cancer. The piece extended her wishes--even her permission--for Jason to go on living after her. She died just days after the piece was published.

Now Jason has written My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me, his memoir that is every bit a love letter back to Amy, celebrating their courtship, marriage, and parenthood. He describes how the two intentionally made lists--part of their style--of their high expectations for living their lives together. They made plans for how to parent long before their three children were born.

Without crossing the line into maudlin and sentimental, Rosenthal gives readers the behind-the-scenes look at a good marriage and a good life, disrupted but not destroyed by cancer. Choosing to live with  purpose and a plan before cancer struck prepared them for the rough road they traveled together to the end of Amy's life. 

Before, Amy was the author and filmmaker in the family, but Jason has not only written the book but has made the TED circuit, sharing his story. One of the jewels of the book is a bibliography of books he recommends for other widowers. 

For the record, even with Amy's permission to move on, Jason still hasn't encountered the woman who answers to Amy's singles ad.