Prologue (A Conversation About Rain)
The book opens in the library at Hazeldene School in the town of Bedford. It’s 19 years before Nora Seed will someday decide to commit suicide. Nora plays chess with Mrs. Elm, the librarian. Meanwhile, they talk about Nora’s her future and career plans. Nora is smart and a star swimmer, and Mrs. Elm says that Nora she could be anything she wants to be. She jokingly suggests glaciology.
The game is interrupted by a phone call with bad news for Nora.
Chapters 1 – 4 (The Man at the Door, String Theory, To Live Is to Suffer, Doors)
Nineteen years later, it’s now 27 hours before Nora will decide to die. Nora is now 35 and has been working at a local music store, String Theory, for nearly 13 years now. She’s dissatisfied with her life. She’s at home, when Ash, an attractive surgeon and neighbor who she’d once asked her out to coffee with, rings her doorbell. Nora wonders if he’ll ask her out again, but instead Ash tells her that her cat, Voltaire (“Volts”), has been hit by a car. Nora sees the cat and feels sadness, but also a bit of envy at seeing him lying there peacefully.
The next day, nine hours before Nora decides to die, Nora is late for work. Neil, her boss, is nice about it, but questions why she’s still even working there since he thinks she’s meant for bigger things. He also gently mentions that she’s off-putting to customers and finally fires her.
Afterwards, Nora wanders around town and thinks about Dan, her ex-fiancé who she’d left two days before their aborted wedding. She also comes across Ravi, her brother Joe’s best friend. Nora was once the songwriter in a band called Labyrinth with Ravi, Ella (Ravi’s girlfriend, now wife) and Joe that was on the verge of a deal with Universal, but Nora nixed her involvement in it. Instead, Joe got a job he dislikes in IT, and Ravi still plays small gigs but is broke. Ravi blames Nora, but Nora says she was getting panic attacks that would have made it impossible.
Chapters 5 – 6 (How to Be a Black Hole, Antimatter)
Contemplating her purposelessness in life, Nora texts her former best friend, Izzy (Isabel Hirsh), who lives in Australia now. Nora then gets a call from Doreen, who is irritated. Nora has forgotten about the music lesson she was supposed to give Doreen’s son, Leo. Doreen now says Leo’s too busy for piano anyway, against Nora’s futile protests.
As she passes by her elderly neighbor, Mr. Banerjee, he informs her of the “good news” that he no longer needs her to pick up his medicine, but it makes Nora feel “superfluous” as a person. At home, Nora sees Voltaire’s empty bowl and takes two anti-depressants. Wallowing in self-pity, she downs a bottle of wine and posts a rambling message on social media. As it nears midnight, Nora decides that it’s time for her to die.
Nora leaves a voicemail for her brother and pens a suicide note, directed to “whoever”. (She overdoses.)
Chapters 7 – 12 (00:00:00, The Librarian, The Midnight Library, The Moving Shelves, The Book of Regrets, Regret Overload)
At midnight precisely, time seems to stop and Nora is engulfed in a mist. Out of it she sees a building, which is revealed to be filled with endless rows of unlabeled books, all with covers colored in shades of green. A woman is there, and she either is or resembles Mrs. Elm. Nora remembers playing chess with Mrs. Elm and getting the news that her father had died of a heart attack.
Mrs. Elm explains to Nora that this is the Midnight Library, a space between life and death. The books are portals to the different lives Nora could have lived if she had made different decisions. Every decision in life leads to different results in life, and those possible lives are reflected in these infinite volumes.
There is one book that is different from the rest. With its grey cover, Mrs. Elm explains that the heavy book is the Book of Regrets, which records every regret Nora has ever had. Nora thinks about the career in glaciology she’d considered but didn’t end up pursuing after Mrs. Elm’s (joking) suggestion so many years ago. As she gets to one part, many of the regrets are related to Dan.
Nora thinks about Dan, a man who worked in PR but had a dream of running a pub in the countryside. Nora’s mother had passed away three months before their wedding. Nora then thinks about the grief she felt, of disappointing Izzy about their plan to move to Australia, about pulling out of the wedding. Overwhelmed by regret, Mrs. Elm instructs Nora to close the book.
Chapters 13 – 15 (Every Life Begins Now, The Three Horseshoes, The Penultimate Update Nora Had Posted Before She Found Herself Between Life and Death)
Mrs. Elm asks Nora what book she’d like to start with. She explains that Nora can stay as long as she likes in each life, but she warns Nora that if she loses the will to carry on while she is between lives, then Nora will truly die with finality.
Nora asks Mrs. Elm to start with a life where she ends up with Dan. As she begins to read, Nora is transported into a pub called The Three Horseshoes with Dan there as her husband. In this reality, she also has a cat named Voltaire, but it looks different. Also, in this reality, Nora is still close with Izzy, which makes her happy.
Nora thinks about the things she’d missed about Dan, but as she is reacquainted with him, she’s reminded of the things she doesn’t like as well — his arrogance, his dislike of her music career. He had been staunchly against her staying in the band. As the night goes on, she notices how much Dan drinks and when they get into an argument, she learns that Dan has been unfaithful.
Nora realizes that her regret over this relationship ending is misplaced and returns to the Midnight library.
Chapters 16 – 18 (The Chessboard, The Only Way to Learn Is to Live, Fire)
Back at the Library, Nora admits that the alternate reality had been different than she’d imagined. Next, she asks to be taken into a reality where her version of Voltaire is an indoor cat, where she is a good cat owner and where he doesn’t get hit by a car. Nora is then transported into a life essentially exactly the same as her original life. She goes looking for Voltaire, but she finds that he is under the bed, but dead. Nora is sad and confused.
Back at the Library, Mrs. Elm explains that basically even if Voltaire was an indoor cat, he would’ve died anyway from a heart condition. Mrs. Elm also adds that Nora gave Voltaire the best year of its life, and that Nora wasn’t a bad cat owner. Voltaire wasn’t hit by a car. Instead, Voltaire likely went outside to die because it didn’t want Nora to see it die. When Nora asks why Mrs. Elm sent her into that life instead of just telling her outright that she wasn’t a bad cat owner. Mrs. Elm responds that “sometimes the only way to learn is to live”.
Next, Nora asks to see a life where she had decided to move to Australia with Izzy. As she is transported to Sydney, she senses she is in the water. Nora thinks about being 14 and a swimming star, winning two races at the National Junior Swimming Championships, until she gave it up. Nora gets out of the pool and has no clue where she lives or what she does for a living.
On her phone is a message from Dan saying he’ll be coming to Australia for work soon. In her e-mails, she finds an address for herself. Nora heads there and sees that she has a flatmate named Jojo, a quirky conspiracy theorist, that she doesn’t recognize. Nora wonders where Izzy is and asks Jojo. Jojo tells her that Izzy died in a car crash. Online, Nora learns that Izzy died a month after they arrived in Australia.
Chapters 19 – 23 (Fish Tank, The Last Update That Nora Had Posted Before She Found Herself Between Life and Death, The Successful Life, Peppermint Tea, The Tree That Is Our Life)
Back at the Library, Nora wonders why she stayed in Australia after Izzy’s death, and Mrs. Elm says she was depressed and grieving and got “stuck” there. Nora wonders if she’s just someone who will be depressed and stuck in any life, but Mrs. Elm disagrees. Then, Mrs. Elm talks to Nora about what success means to her, and Nora realizes that she doesn’t know. She thinks about how swimming was something she’d pursued because it was important to her father, but not to her. Still, she wonders what would have happened if she’d stuck with it.
Mrs. Elm summons an appropriate book, and Nora is then transported into a life where she had doggedly pursued her swimming career. She finds herself in an upscale hotel room, feeling very healthy. Online, she learns that she is a 2-time Olympian, having won a gold and two silver medals before retiring at 28. She now covers swimming for the BBC. Through social media, Nora sees that Izzy is still alive in this life, though it’s possible they never ended up meeting, and Dan is married to a spin instructor named Gina Lord.
Nora finds a video of herself, talking confidently about the pursuit of success. A woman named Nadia calls, and Nora is shocked to learn that her dad is alive. Nora’s dad did not have a heart attack in this life because he ended up on a health kick as Nora was training for the Olympics. Nadia is her father’s second wife. He had an affair with Nadia and left Nora’s mother. Nora realizes that her parents not loving her properly as a child likely had more to do with unhappiness in their own marriage.
Afterwards, Nadia is very happy to see her brother Joe and that they get along well. He is apparently her manager, and he manages others as well. Nora is supposed to give at the hotel. Unlike in the original life, here, Joe is happily married to Ewan, his husband. Joe also doesn’t drink and Nora doesn’t consume caffeine.
As they talk, Nora is disappointed to learn that she’s still on antidepressants in this life. Nora sees scars on her arm that she realizes are self-inflicted. Also, in the original life, she and Joe had been there for her mother before her death. Instead, here, her mother had started drinking a lot after their father left and she’d hid her sickness from Nora and Joe.
Joe also tells her that he happened to run into Ravi, who he hasn’t seen in 10 years in this life, and he invited Ravi to Nora’s talk. When Nora gives her talk, instead of speaking about the pursuit of success, she talks about what she’s learned from the Midnight Library — she says that success is a delusion, and she talks philosophically about the different paths life can take. The audience looks uncomfortable, but she sees that Ravi is smiling at her.
Chapters 24 – 31 (System Error, Svalbard, Hugo Lefèvre, Walking in Circles, A Moment of Extreme Crisis in the Middle of Nowhere, The Frustration of Not Finding a Library When You Really Need One, Island, Permafrost)
After the talk, Nora is transported back to the Midnight Library, having realized that the “successful” life is not one she wants either. Upon her arrival, the Midnight Library glitches slightly until Nora thinks about her desire to remain alive. Next, Nora asks Mrs. Elm to take her to a life where her mother is still alive. However, Mrs. Elm says that’s not a possibility since in every life her mother would have been dead by now.
Instead, Nora asks to see a life where she’d pursued glaciology, which her parents had discouraged. With that, she’s transported into the life of an Arctic Researcher. She finds herself in the cabin of a boat. Her cabinmate is Ingrid Skirbekk, a Professor of Geoscience, who is part of the International Polar Research Institute. Nora learns that Ingrid took this research position after Per (presumably her husband) had died to get away from the memory of him. They are here to study climate change.
In the dining hall, there are about 17 other people. She meets and talks to Hugo Lefèvre. Nora soon finds out that she’s on spotting duty for that day, assign to be on the lookout for polar bears. When one actually appears, the prospect of her dying makes Nora acknowledge her desire to live. Nora scares it off with noise, as instructed.
Afterwards, Nora thinks about her parents, the disappointments and the crushed hopes in their lives. Nora’s mother, Donna, had at one point had some type of breakdown that resulted in her never returning to work. Meanwhile, Nora’s father, Geoff’s, life had taught him the lesson that life was meant to screw you over. His father died when he was young, he was bullied and played rugby until an injury derailed his sporting future. Nora thinks of their dashed hopes and considers that it was their unfulfilled “expectation to achieve in the first place” as opposed to the lack of achievement that caused their unhappiness. She thinks about how she loves them and forgives them for the ways they’ve disappointed her.
Chapters 32 – 35 (One Night in Longyearbyen, Expectation, Life and Death and the Quantum Wave Function, If Something Is Happening to Me, I Want to Be There)
As Nora continues her Arctic adventure, Hugo approaches her. He has recognized her acting strangely, and he admits that he, too, has been slipping in and out of his possible lives. Hugo tells her that his version of her Midnight Library is a video store filled with VHS movies. It resembles one he used to go to. His guide is his Uncle Philippe. He also says he’s met others like them, each with their own venues (somewhere with emotional significance) and guides (someone who has helped them at an important time) to help them navigate their infinite lives.
Hugo explains that quantum superposition is what allows all these infinite lives to exist at once. Hugo has seen hundreds of lives and plans to continue to do so. Meanwhile, Nora worries that she’ll die for real if she doesn’t find a life she has the will to live.
Afterwards, feeling impulsive knowing that any decision is just one iteration of her life, she kisses Hugo and they sleep together. It’s a disappointment, and Nora soon finds herself back at the Midnight Library.
Chapters 36 – 43 (God and Other Librarians, Fame, Milky Way, Wild and Free, Ryan Bailey, A Silver Tray of Honey Cakes, The Podcast of Revelations, ‘Howl’)
Next, Nora asks to experience fame, and she is transported to a life where her band Labyrinth had made it big. She is in a middle of a show in São Paulo, Brazil and Ravi is on-stage with her. Joe is no longer in the band. Nora’s manager appears to be a woman named Joanna. On Instagram, she has 11.3 million followers.
After the show, Nora gets a call from Ryan Bailey, a famous A-list actor that she’d once fantasized about in her original life. He’s slightly drunk, and Nora realizes that she has recently dumped him. The call is amicable, and they agree to remain friends.
Afterwards, Nora is brought to a lavish suite to do an interview with two podcasters from O Som, the most popular music podcast in Brazil. During the interview, they podcasters reference a restraining order that Nora had against her ex-husband Dan Lord. In her mind, Nora marvels that Dan would be bored of her and cheating in one life, but practically obsessed with her in another. The interviewer, Marcello, also mentions that the media seems to give her a hard time and talks about her tumultuous career.
Then, Marcello brings up that Joe overdosed two years ago. Nora immediately gets up out of the interview and heads downstairs, in shock and sadness, and soon she finds herself back at the Midnight Library.
Chapters 44 – 50 (Love and Pain, Equidistance, Someone Else’s Dream, The Gentle Life, Why Want Another Universe If This One Has Dogs?, Dinner with Dylan, Last Chance Saloon)
Nora is frustrated and unhappy when she sees Mrs. Elm again, and she wants to give up. Mrs. Elm recalls the games of chess that she used to play with Nora and how she’d give up if she lost a few key pieces like her queen and whatnot, acting like the game was over and that her pawns and such were useless. Mrs. Elm encourages Nora to try a less obvious life, saying that a more ordinary life can still lead to “victory”.
Mrs. Elm reminds Nora of a time when she’d done a dangerous swim across a river to try to impress Joe and other people at a party. She’d ended up part-way through and not knowing which way to go in order to survive. Instead she had to simply commit to one direction and go for it. Nora is able to see this memory, and she also sees that Joe had tried to go in after her to help, but others had stopped him.
Nora considers that her lives have largely been about other people’s dreams — her brother’s dream about The Labyrinths, her father’s dream about swimming, Izzy’s dream about Australia, Dan’s dream about the bar, and even Mrs. Elm’s suggestion about glaciology. Instead, Nora decides she wants to try a “gentle” life next, one about working with animals.
In this “gentle” life, Nora works at an animal rescue center and is seeing a man named Dylan, who had been two years below her in secondary school, though they didn’t know each other then. Dylan mentions having happened to have seen Mrs. Elm not too long ago at the Oak Leaf Residential Care Home, a retirement home. Nora passes by String Theory and notes that it has closed not too long ago.
Dylan is a good person. They have dinner together and watch a Ryan Bailey movie. He has a bunch of dogs. Despite him being perfectly nice, Nora “wasn’t too enamoured with this life” and she bids it farewell.
Chapters 51 – 59 (Buena Vista Vineyard, The Many Lives of Nora Seed, Lost in the Library, A Pearl in the Shell, The Game, The Perfect Life, A Spiritual Quest for a Deeper Connection with the Universe, Hammersmith, Tricycle)
Next, Nora tries something different, a life where she moves to America, marries a Mexican-American man named Eduardo Martinez and they live on a small vineyard in California. There’s nothing wrong with the life, but there’s a fakeness to it, and Nora lets that life go as well. From there, Nora tests out a multitude of lives — as a concert pianist, having a teenage son, as a travel vlogger, as a cat-sitter, as an aid worker — and even coming across Hugo again. Eventually, however, Nora starts feeling like she’s losing track of who she really is and she wants a life that she can settle down in.
It occurs to her to try a life where she’d accepted Ash’s coffee date once upon a time, instead of rejecting it because she’d been with Dan at the time. With that, Nora finds herself in a life with Ash sleeping next to her. They have a young daughter named Molly, and Nora was a professor at Cambridge but she’s currently on sabbatical writing a book. They have a dog named Plato. Nora discovers that she is surprisingly content in this life, and she suspects this is the one she’ll want to stay in.
Joe seems to be a part of her life, and he is married to Ewan, who he’d met at a cross-training class. Nora and Joe talk, and he admits that he was a jerk to her for a while over the whole band thing. He realizes that he was dismissive of her panic attacks and it wasn’t until Ewan got them, too, that he realized they were serious. Nora realizes that in her other lives there was an absence of love. Even as a rock star, Joe had stuck with her because she was making him money, not because they’d sorted out their issues. Joe is working as a sound engineer now.
As time passes, she finds herself feeling grateful for this life. However, she remembers that Mrs. Elm had told her that once she settled into a life she wanted that she’d eventually forget the library, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, Nora feels like a fraud because she hasn’t earned this life.
Chapters 60 – 63 (No Longer Here, An Incident With the Police, A New Way of Seeing, The Flowers Have Water)
Remembering what Dylan had told her in another life, Nora goes to the Oak Leaf Residential Care Home to find Mrs. Elm, but instead she runs into Mr. Banerjee there. He doesn’t recognize her, though, because in this life they were never neighbors. Nora wonders why Mr. Banerjee ended up in a elderly care facility in this life when he had been determined not to in her original life. When she inquires about Mrs. Elm, they inform her that Louise Elm died peacefully about three weeks ago.
Next, Nora goes by Mr. Banerjee’s house. She sees that the lawn is overgrown. She thinks about the plants she helped water for him when he was in surgery. Then, she thinks about Mrs. Elm telling her to “never underestimate the big importance of small things”. She wonders if her actions could have impacted whether or not he ended up in a care facility.
Elsewhere in the neighborhood, she sees the police arrest a boy for theft that turns out to be Leo. In this life, she never ended up teaching him piano. In the original life, Doreen had looked into lessons because Leo liked music and had started getting in with a bad crowd. Nora had offered inexpensive lessons and as Leo’s confidence in music grew, he improved in other areas as well and never get mixed up with worse stuff. However, in the current reality, Doreen had never found affordable lessons, and Leo had taken a bad turn in life.
Meanwhile, String Theory has closed down, as was the case in the Dylan reality as well. Nora thinks about the many expensive instruments she did manage to sell in her original life.
As she comes to see the value she had in her original life, Nora senses her grip on this reality is fading, even as she reminds herself how great this reality is. Once thinks about how her family here (Molly, Ash, Plato, etc.) will be fine without her, she returns to the Midnight Library.
Chapters 64 – 65 (Nowhere to Land, Don’t You Dare Give Up, Nora Seed!)
Back at the Library, things are falling apart. Soon, the Library sparks and books start to catch on fire. Nora doesn’t understand what is happening. She tells Mrs. Elm that she wanted to stay in the previous life, but Mrs. Elm disagrees. The reason Nora ended up back at the Midnight Library is because she wanted to live (in her original life). Mrs. Elm points out that time has started progressing forward once again on Nora’s watch.
As the Library continues to burn, Mrs. Elm tells Nora that there’s a way that she can escape. The Library is falling apart, but Nora needs to find the book that represents her original life and write that story. She gives Nora a pen. Nora located the book and finally writes “I am alive”, and the Library dissolves.
Chapters 66 – 71 (Awakening, The Other Side of Despair, A Thing I Have Learned, Living Versus Understanding, The Volcano, How It Ends)
Back in her original life, Nora wakes up and throws up. Dehydrated, delirious, trembling and in pain, she stumbles outside and asks Mr. Banerjee to call an ambulance before collapsing. Later, she awakes in the hospital. After being checked-in on by the doctors, Nora deletes the post she’d written on social media before overdosing and replaces it with a hopeful post on what she’s learned.
Joe shows up due to the voicemail Nora had left him before overdosing. As they talk, Nora apologies for breaking up the band, and Joe apologies for things he’s done as well. Nora also tells Joe that she knows that he tried to go in after her the day she almost drowned when crossing the river, though Joe doesn’t know how she knows it. Joe also tells Nora that he’s thinking about becoming a sound engineer in Hammersmith, and there’s a cross-training gym nearby. There’s a guy, Ewan, that he has recently met there, and Nora enthusiastically encourages Joe to ask Ewan out.
Izzy has also responded back to her text and she’s actually planning on moving back to the UK soon. Back at home, Nora thanks Mr. Banerjee for his help, and seeing his lovely garden Nora is able to appreciate the beauty of it.
When Doreen calls, Nora apologizes profusely about missing Leo’s lesson, but Doreen is just letting her know that Leo wants to continue his lessons. Neil also allows Nora to put up some flyers at String Theory offering more piano lessons to others, and the ads have already gotten a large response. Nora also start volunteering at the homeless shelter once a week, and she considers getting a dog.
Finally, Nora finds Mrs. Elm at the retirement home where she offers to play chess with her. Mrs. Elm talks about her own regrets in life, how she’s let people down and she thinks they’ve given up on her. Nora tells Mrs. Elm that she was there for her when she needed her, and Nora assures Mrs. Elm that she will make time to play chess for her.
Sounds like a wonderful book – will be recommending it for book club next month.
Our teacher made us read this, now writing an essay about the book and this is quite helpful for summarising all the key events of the book so thanks
This was a helpful synopsis. Our club will be discussing this soon. It was very easy going compared to some of these classics we’ve read.
I like how it works with the concept of alternatives lives. A blending of traditional reincarnation and the Many Worlds theory. If you’re interested in alternate lives, or reincarnation, look into the work of the early 20th Century seer, Edgar Cayce.