V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020) is a charming, thoughtful, sometimes-dark, sometimes moving, story about memory, love, rash decisions, female agency, stubborn defiance, mortality, resilience, and the power of art. In this time of Covid, a novel focused so much on the desire for human contact and fear of dying without leaving “a mark” is especially timely, though The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue would have been a highly recommended book in any other year.
Addie LaRue is a young woman in 18th Century France who yearns to be her own person, like the old woman outside town, Estele, “who belongs to everyone, and no one, and herself” and who is said by her mother to be bound for Hell and by her father to be mad. But Addie wants nothing so much as Estele’s kind of freedom and wisdom, as opposed to her mother’s attempts to make her more like “Isabelle Therault, sweet and kind and utterly incurious, content to keep her eyes down upon her knitting instead of looking up at clouds, instead of wondering what’s around the bend, over the hills.”
This being 18th Century France, though, what Addie wants is of little account, as when she turns 23, she is “gifted like a prize sow to a man she does not love, or want, or even know.” Nor is there anyone she can turn to for help: “Her mother said it was duty. Her father said it was mercy … Estele said nothing, because she knew it wasn’t fair. Knew this was the risk of being a woman.”
But on the night of her wedding, when “the church bell tolls the same low tone it calls at funerals,” Addie does find, if not an ally, someone who can at least get her out of this trap. One of what Estele calls the old gods, though she’d always warned Addie against those who answered “after dark.” Desperate times call for desperate measures, though, and so Addie makes her wish: “I do not want to belong to someone else … I want to be free … to find my own way … I am so tired of not having choices … I want more time,” sealing the bargain with “You can have my soul when I don’t want it anymore.”
And so it is done. But as all the stories note, such bargains are never what they seem. The “freedom” the old god (called Luc by Addie) bestows on her is the curse of being forgotten by all she meets so that she moves through the world wholly untethered, leaving no mark — not in the minds of people she encounters, not on the physical world she moves through. When she spills wine on a sofa, “She simply watches as the stain soaks in, and through, and disappears. As if it was never there. As if she was never there.” When she “upsets a tiny pot of varnish, spilling the precious oil onto her father’s notes … The parchment lies unmarked, untouched … Only her hands are stained.”
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a dual-stranded novel, with alternating chapters following Addie either from the 1700s to the near-present or during a single year from 2013 to 2014. Across that span of centuries, Addie is at varying times enraptured and devastated by her vow. In the earliest stages, she is merely sussing out the actual logistics of things, as when she returns one day to her home: “Fifty years and she is still learning the shape of her curse. She cannot make a thing, but she can use it. She cannot break a thing, but she can steal it. She cannot start a fire, but she can keep it going.” Later, she finds ways to make her gift/curse work for her (as when she “meets” a noblewoman multiple times, the woman always forgetting her, until Addie gets the meet right so that she is taken in by the lady).
She also figures out a loophole in the “can’t leave a mark” aspect — art. Something she realizes after being sketched: “her image will still be there, charcoal on parchment, a palimpsest beneath a finished work. It will be real, and so will she.” This epiphany extends her long war with Luc, who had at first shown up once a year, sure she’d be ready to give up. But she has proven more stubbornly resilient than he’d expected: “I have found a way to leave a mark … You thought you could erase me from this world, but you cannot.”
The biggest shift in her long life, though, comes when she, for the first time ever, meets someone (Henry) who remembers her. This is the 2014 story, and I won’t say anything more about that save to say that Henry’s ability to remember her is a mystery (eventually explained), a source of joy and tragedy, and a catalyst for change with regards to Addie’s view toward her life and her relationship with Luc.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a character and theme-driven book more than an action one. Suspense comes into play with regards to how Addie lives to the 2000s, why Henry can remember her, and whether or not Addie will give in to Luc (who can be both suavely charming and terrifying). But mostly it’s a character study of both Addie and Henry (though this is clearly mostly Addie’s story), as well as an exploration of a host of ideas.
The agency of women, as noted above, is one. Something we see not only in the 1700s, but later as well, as when Addie passes herself off as male, because “Freedom is a pair of trousers and a buttoned coat. A man’s tunic and a tricorne hat … The darkness claimed he’d given her freedom, but really, there is no such thing for a woman, not in a world where they are bound up inside their clothes, and sealed inside their homes, a world where only men are given leave to roam.” The concept is not always so bluntly stated though; even Addie’s curse, for example, can be read as a clear metaphor for how women (and we’re talking present-day as well) are often treated as “invisible,” are often “forgotten,” written out of history, denied recognition and honor (Rosalind Franklin, Lisa Meitner, and a dismayingly long list of others) or just ignored day-to-day. In the world of “Me Too,” Addie’s recognition of “how much the word [no] was worth” coming from a woman in 1714 is hardly an obsolete discovery. Even Addie’s recognition that “Being forgotten is a bit like going mad. You begin to wonder what is real, if you are real,” calls up stories like “The Yellow Wallpaper” or the classic madwoman-in-the-attic tales.
All this means that being basically immortal doesn’t lead to her galivanting around the world like a man would have been able to: “She watches these men and wonders anew at how open the world is to them, how easy the thresholds.” This also means The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue isn’t an historical fiction novel with Addie thrown into all the major events she lives through, a la Zellig (look him up, youngsters).
The character study of Henry, meanwhile, is smaller, more on a human-scale as opposed to a societal or cosmic one (a battle between two immortals, one once-human and other that might be a god, the devil, or a demon). His is the anxiety of daily insecurity, of mounting anxiety that alone amongst those around you, you’re the one who doesn’t know what to do with life, what to be, what to become, what to choose (partly because to choose one is to reject the other options). It’s a wholly different kind of story than Addie’s, but it’s also admittedly a fine line to walk between a story that is relatable and empathy-evoking and one that is wince-inducing thanks to being about some whiny privileged-with-choices white boy. Luckily, Schwab is (mostly) able to sidestep the latter pitfalls. I also liked how Schwab not only presents his and Addie’s relationship as gentle and tender, but also gives us the a less “shiny” but more realistic aspect of having Addie trying to figure out if this is real love or just joy at finding someone whom she can actually interact with. Both of them, in fact, all three of them (Luc is a pleasant surprise in terms of his complexity) have to distinguish between what they really feel/need and what they’re driven to think they feel/need by the crushing weight of loneliness (years’-old for Henry, centuries’-old for Addie, and millennia’-worth for Luc).
The writing is another strong point of the book. I particularly loved Schwab’s use of metaphor, as when Addie thinks “she would rather be a tree … left to flourish wild instead of pruned … better that than firewood, cut down just to burn in someone else’s hearth.” A metaphor that Schwab returns to multiple times — when Addie is forced into marriage “Adeline was going to be a tree, and instead, people have come brandishing an axe” or when she herself plants a tree on Estele’s grave and then returns to see it change over the centuries. Another lovely metaphor occurs when Addie mourns that, “She never gets closure, never gets to say good-byes — no periods, or exclamations, just a lifetime of ellipses. Everyone starts over, they get a blank page, but hers are full of text.”
That image is a constant refrain in the novel, as Schwab makes liberal use of the word “palimpsest” (a half-dozen times in the book), which refers to a page (or something similar) that has been erased to be used again, though one can still discern traces of the old text/drawing beneath the new. The connection is clear, and even when Schwab doesn’t use the word itself she uses similar imagery — the above referenced wine and ink, a description of her family’s home after a half-century as “New clothes laid over old bones,” or Addie’s feeling of “The present folding on top of the past instead of erasing it, replacing it.”
The book is rife with these sort of motifs and allusions (I love motifs and allusions): references to doors being locked against her, to The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Tempest, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, maybe The Seventh Seal, and others. Sometimes, I confess, I did wish Schwab had let the reader make some of the connections themselves or wasn’t quite so blunt in usage. The Dorian Gray line, for instance. Or when Addie visits a museum and thinks how she “feels like a museum sometimes, one only she can visit.” I already had made that recognition. And while I think Schwab gives us an absolutely killer ending (or near-ending), I also wished she hadn’t gone down another path at the end, a sort of meta-fictional one that I won’t divulge save to say it involves a book. Finally, it’s possible the novel goes on a little long; it did feel a bit repetitive toward the end.
But those were relatively minor complaints. Overall, The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue was one of my favorite reads in the last half-year or so thanks to its characterization, themes, and craft, and I certainly highly recommend it.
The old gods may be great, but they are neither kind nor merciful… [N]o matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark.
So Adeline LaRue has been told by Estelle, the old woman who lives in her small French village, but Addie has never been good at following the rules. Unlike her friend Isabelle, she dreams of freedom rather than settling down with a husband and children. She evades matrimony until she is 23, far past the normal age of marriage in rural France in 1714, but then the jig is up: her parents order her to marry the unappealing man (to be fair, Addie hasn’t found any man appealing) whose wife recently died in childbirth and who needs a mother for his three children.
Addie calls on whatever gods might listen, and doesn’t notice — and barely cares when she does notice — that day is gone and it is now dark. She is desperate not to be tied down to a man she hardly knows and saddled with his children, so she agrees to give her soul to the dark figure who appears to her, as soon as she is done with her life and “doesn’t want it any more.” And suddenly, she’s at liberty, only minutes before her planned wedding.
The catch is that the darkness, as she calls this ancient god or devil, has given the monkey’s paw treatment to Addie’s wish to be free and not belong to anyone else. Now no one, even her parents, remembers her at all. Anyone who sees her will completely forget her as soon as a door closes between them. Out of sight is literally out of mind. And many more ramifications, as Addie begins to explore the boundaries of her ill-thought-out deal. She has all the time in the world to do so — she no longer ages either. The lack of real human connection almost brings her down.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue shifts between Addie’s life in modern New York City and flashbacks to her past, as she navigates her way through the years. The cruel dark god, whom she eventually names “Luc,” checks in with her occasionally, cheerfully admitting that it was in his best interest to make her new life unpleasant. Still, he’s the only one who remembers Addie … until she meets Henry Strauss in 2014, who recognizes her even after she’s walked out of his bookstore (and his line of sight) with a stolen book.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a fascinating twist on the “sell your soul to the devil” theme. V.E. Schwab examines the day-to-day effect that such a bargain would have on your life, as Addie explores all the nooks and crannies of her curse, searching out ways to avoid the worst of the effects.
She will learn in time that she can lie, and the words will flow like wine, easily poured, easily swallowed. But the truth will always stop at the end of her tongue. Her story silenced for all but herself.
Addie gradually learns to find some sense of safety and even the limited companionship of others, though ephemeral. But always, always there’s the fact that no one will ever remember her once she’s out of their sight for even a moment. When she meets Henry, with his inexplicable ability to remember her for more than a day, a powerful connection quickly develops between them. But is it another curse, or a blessing?
The pacing was pretty languid for the first quarter of the book or so, as Addie struggles to come to terms with her new life in eighteenth century France, and (in other chapters) rather aimlessly meanders around twenty-first century New York. But Addie’s stubborn determination is winning, and it’s interesting to see the ways she finds to deal with her restrictions. More importantly, Schwab’s evocative writing is stellar, laden with lovely imagery, symbolism and deeper meanings.
Live long enough, and you learn how to read a person. To ease them open like a book, some passages underlined and others hidden between the lines.
At the beginning of each section of the book, there are intermittent pages with line drawings and detailed descriptions of valuable works of art. Schwab’s purpose in including them is initially unclear, but eventually it becomes apparent just how much these artworks illuminate Addie’s story. And although, like Bill, I’m not entirely on board with the meta aspects of the ending, it’s otherwise a killer ending that first had tears running down my face and then made my jaw drop.
There’s an explicitly feminist theme running through the pages of this book, showing the need for the power of choosing and forging your own life’s path, and the importance of being truly heard and remembered. But it’s also about love and its different facets. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue balances darkness and light, deep despair and hopefulness. It’s a marvelous achievement.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a fascinating exploration of what it might mean to be unable to build, break, or belong; the cost and freedom of being a living ghost; and the indelible-yet-mutable way that ideas can transcend both time and place. It’s a wonderful, complex, powerfully feminist work of fantastical fiction that kept me glued to my seat until the final page. Addie’s defiant insistence upon truly living, experiencing everything from hope to despair to ennui to joy and everything in between, captured my imagination. Schwab’s lovely prose flows effortlessly across the pages, and I especially appreciated the pains she takes to describe visual media like wood-carvings, paintings, and photography in ways that convey physical appearance as well as the sensations those pieces evoke in the viewer.
“Palimpsest” isn’t just a great word to say, it’s a key fixture within Addie’s story, and it’s also a lens through which the reader can view the framework of the novel itself. I was more comfortable with the meta-fictional ending than Tadiana and Bill; after all, we don’t know how a story will end until it ends, whether we’re discussing a fictional novel written about a singular person or that person’s actual life, and without wading into spoilers, I thought that the open-ended nature of the last few pages fit perfectly with the story-in-progress spirit of the larger narrative. There were times when I thought something was just a bit too coincidental, only to discover that this, too, was a deliberate choice on Schwab’s part, and yet another glimpse into a particular character’s motivations. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is the first full-length book I’ve read by V.E. Schwab, but it certainly won’t be the last.
Macmillan Audio’s edition, narrated by Julia Whelan, is quite excellent.