Erin Larson: Book Reviews & Essays

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

By V.E. Schwab

 

I received an ARC of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue from Macmillan-Tor/Forge in exchange for an honest review.

 

I love Faustian bargains.

Adeline LaRue, a young woman living in early 18th-century France, desperate to escape her impending marriage, makes one with “a god who answers after dark”: she will live until she is done with her life (an intentionally vague criterion cooked up by Addie herself), but she will be forgotten almost instantaneously by everyone she meets as soon as she leaves their sight. It’s not a particularly original premise, but it’s an intriguing one nevertheless. Unfortunately, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is sorely lacking in execution and leaves much to be desired.

Addie is an extraordinarily dull character. Her only personality trait is having seven freckles, and yet everyone instantly falls in love with her. The term “Mary Sue” has acquired misogynistic connotations in recent years (it is most often used in reference to competent female characters), but Addie feels like a Mary Sue in the traditional sense: an author stand-in who never changes or develops. The book covers three hundred years of Addie’s life, and she thinks, speaks, and acts the same way in the 18th century as she does in the 21st (she feels like a modern person displaced into history, even though it’s actually the other way around). I’m hardly the same person I was ten years ago, but Addie’s beliefs and attitudes and behaviors seem to have been untouched by three centuries of shifting social and technological dynamics, which is both difficult to believe and desperately boring to read about. At least the other characters have the excuse of mortality.

Schwab seems to abhor functional prose; the sentences in Addie are so overwrought, so desperate to impress, that they feel like rubber bands stretched to the point of snapping. I’m normally not one to be put off by rich, too-sweet prose—on a scale from the simplicity of Sanderson to the scintillation of Rothfuss, my preferences lean more in the latter direction—but I found it truly unbearable in Addie. It’s marginally more tolerable in the early historical sections, because at least those parts are cushioned by the veneer of fable, but as the timeline approaches modern day it becomes a sickly sheen which evokes an insufferable twee hipster aesthetic. It was impossible for me to enjoy the story because each sentence is so insistent on drawing attention to itself.

There’s an aspect of Addie which grated on me, and I can’t quite figure how to articulate it. My first instinct was to describe the book as “white,” like HBO’s Girls without the sharp satire and probing self-awareness. You know the vibe. But that’s more of a personal annoyance, and what Addie is doing (or not doing) feels more insidious. “Eurocentric” is a word closer to the source of my discomfort. This is a book which encompasses a lot of time and space—not only does it span three hundred years, but it features a character who can take Addie anywhere in the world at will—and yet it never escapes the gravity well of Western culture; it never shows interest in the art or experiences of people who aren’t white. It hardly even acknowledges their existence.

“Why does everything have to be about race?” you might ask. “That’s beyond the scope of the book.” But it’s not. Addie mostly takes place in France and America, mostly between the years 1714-2014: those are places and times which are loaded with racial history—to put the book in that geographical and chronological framework is to invite a discourse about race, a discourse with which both Addie the text and Addie the character refuse to engage. The relationship this book has with history is frighteningly cavalier. When Addie is asked about her experiences living through major historical events, she dismisses the question by claiming that history doesn’t feel like history when it’s happening, an assertion which seems the opposite of true: doesn’t everything feel like a major historical event when you’re living through it?

Addie makes a deal with the devil because she doesn’t want to get married. It is explicitly stated in the text that there are other supernatural entities and other people who have made deals with them, which led me to wonder: why should I care about Addie? What about the people who made deals to escape slavery? The people who made deals to escape concentration camps? Why aren’t we getting those stories? I briefly managed to convince myself that this was an intentional bit of subversion, that Schwab was playing 4D chess with me. “Ah,” I thought, “the pain of one person does not invalidate the pain of another. Schwab is tricking me into being dismissive of Addie’s suffering, because to be dismissive of her suffering is to be dismissive of my own—there are, after all, people who have it a lot worse than I do in the real world, but that doesn’t make my own unhappiness any less real.” But the subversion never came. The book breezes by these concerns, never stopping to interrogate the meaningful questions it inadvertently raises.

This is a text which seems positioned for real-world commentary. Addie physically exists in the world and yet is forgotten, over and over, by the people around her—a ready-made metaphor for those who are homeless or living in poverty. But the book never explores this. Addie is erased from the minds of others because she asked for freedom, and yet she disguises herself as a man at one point because she realizes that it is easier to move through society as a male than a female. But the book never explores this. This is a text which seems vapid at first glance, and upon deeper reflection, it is. I am reminded of Penny’s line from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog: “Sometimes people are layered…. There’s something totally different underneath than what’s on the surface.” To which Billy replies: “And sometimes there’s a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one.” Thus it is with The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is like an afternoon nap you didn’t intend to take: it’s not, strictly speaking, the worst way to spend a few hours. But you wake up when it’s getting dark, you realize you wasted the day, and you can’t help but feel grumpy. “A Life No One Will Remember,” says the tagline of the book. “A Story You Will Never Forget.” If only I could.

 

Review by Erin Larson

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue will be published October 6th, 2020.

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