The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Blink, and your entire evening is gone. This is the charm of Addie LaRue: the book is not short, but the individual chapters are so brief that half the book goes by in an instant. (As for the length of the book, it may have something to do with Schwab’s love affair with the return key.)
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue spans 316 years in the life of the titular Adeline “Addie” LaRue, a young woman who sells her soul at the age of 23 to escape her stifled existence. She is a natural wanderer, but had the misfortune of being born in Villon-sur-Sarthe, a small village in seventeenth-century France. Despite the deep-rooted Catholic influence of the village, Addie grows up slightly apart from the rest of the community: her father is a talented wood carver, and he encourages her interest in drawing, which sustains her through early adulthood. She also befriends Estele Magritte, an old woman who lives in a small house in the woods surrounding the village and is reputed to be a witch. (Also, #goals.) Upon learning that Estele practices a more traditional faith, Addie turns from the Catholic god – in whom she never fully believed – and begins instead to pray to the old gods. This works well enough in helping her dodge unwanted marriages throughout her teenage years, but her luck evaporates when her community gangs up and tries to force her to marry Roger, a local widower and father of three. Desperate and out of time, Addie escapes into the woods just before the wedding and prays to the old gods one last time, and gets more than she ever bargained for when she is answered by the darkness itself.
This isn’t great, but, in the heat of the moment, it still seems like a better option than Roger. On July 29, 1714, Addie LaRue therefore strikes a deal with an untrustworthy god, only to find that his idea of indefinite freedom has completely destroyed her life. Under the terms of their bargain, the darkness – named Luc after Addie’s imaginary boyfriend – removes all memories of Addie from the minds of her parents and their entire community. In exchange, he expects to reap her soul when she no longer wants it, but doesn’t seem to comprehend either the strength of her will or her desire to live. Suddenly homeless and reviled by the people she loves, Addie wanders away from Villon-sur-Sarthe, first walking to the nearby city of Le Mans and then on to Paris. She learns quickly that people will see her when she is directly in front of them, and they will hear her and interact with her, but their memories get wiped the moment they lose sight of her. Nothing she does makes a mark on the world: she cannot write or draw, because her marks are instantly erased, and she can’t even make a stain, because anything she spills disappears at once. There is, however, a loophole: though Addie cannot directly create any sort of art, she learns that she can influence others, and that their work will persist. Over the centuries, as she wanders all over Europe and eventually makes her way to America, she also makes her way into drawings, paintings, even music as she befriends artists and musicians. They never remember the source of their inspiration, but Addie still gains some satisfaction from seeing her influence on their art, especially as she has inspired some of their best-known works.
Meanwhile, Henry Samuel Strauss – failed theology student, bookseller, and part-time cat dad – finds himself in a very unhappy place. He has struggled with crippling bouts of depression for most of his life, which he refers to as “storms,” but his family has not been helpful and his friends are unaware of the depth of his illness. As of 2014, his first boyfriend has dumped him, his long-term girlfriend rejected his proposal, and he got low-key kicked out of theology school. His best friend Beatrice (“Bea”) is an art history major who treats Henry’s bookstore like her own personal library despite his ire, and his other best friend Robbie – also his ex – is a fledgling actor, but Henry himself doesn’t have much to do. His reason for waking is The Last Word, a small secondhand bookstore in New York, where he has been working for the last five years. At 27, he comes thisclose to committing suicide but is stopped by Luc, who offers him a crappy deal in exchange for his soul. Henry agrees, then spends the next several months repenting in leisure. With no means whatever of canceling the deal, he muddles through the remaining year of his life until the day Addie LaRue waltzes into his store and tries to shoplift a copy of The Odyssey, written in Greek no less. Addie is shocked when he catches her, then shocked again when he recognizes her the next day.
At the point that Addie meets Henry, it has been almost 300 years since Luc first cursed her. He has visited her sporadically over the years, usually on July 29, their accepted anniversary, but has ignored her for the last 40 years since a violent falling-out in New Orleans. Their acrimonious relationship has slightly softened over the years, and, though Addie still blames him for most of the ills in her life (whether he actually had anything to do with them or not), they have both given in to their mutual attraction many times. However, this is not even close to a relationship, though Luc seems to wish it were, and Addie shortly finds herself falling genuinely in love with Henry. Their curses line up nicely, or at least in theory they do, though I’m not sure I follow Addie’s reasoning when she says their curses are complementary. I follow the argument that she fulfills Henry’s desire to be seen because he in turn fulfills her deepest desire, which is to be remembered, but I’m fuzzier on her claim that Henry can remember her specifically because of this desire. Her curse has nothing to do with her desire for companionship, which makes this conversation feel less like a logical extension of the argument and more like a forced justification on the part of the author.
He cringes back, as if struck. “But my deal doesn’t work on you.”
Addie softens, takes his hand. “Of course it does. Your deal and mine, they nest like Russian dolls together in a shell. I look at you, and I see exactly what I want. It’s just that what I want has nothing to do with looks, or charm, or success. It would sound awful, in another life, but what I want most – what I need – has nothing to do with you at all. What I want, what I’ve always truly wanted, is for someone to remember me. That’s why you can say my name. That’s why you can go away, and come back, and still know who I am. And that’s why I can look at you, and see you as you are. And it is enough. It will always be enough.”
I mean, what does this even mean? Does it mean that Henry’s curse purposely fulfilled Addie’s desire specifically in order to attract her to him? That still has nothing to do with Addie’s curse, unless you’re arguing that her curse unintentionally custom-fitted her to Henry’s curse by making her so hungry for companionship that the simple act of rememberance became the catalyst for their relationship. This does make sense, but it also seems awfully specific. In any case – and whether it makes sense to me or not – each fulfills the needs of the other, and each struggles with a kind of invisibility as a result of their curse, albeit in different ways. They find in each other a mutual recognition and a safe harbor, and they manage to carve out a little bit of happiness before Henry finally admits that he was only given a year to live after accepting Luc’s deal. Furious and unwilling to accept Henry’s upcoming death, and knowing that Luc is no longer interested in taking her soul, Addie offers him a new deal: Henry will be released from his contract, and Addie will become Luc’s official lover. Luc agrees, seemingly not realizing that Addie fully intends this arrangement to be temporary. With the next stage of her war against Luc firmly in place, Addie visits a London bookstore two years later, where she finds the book Henry wrote based on the stories she told him, the newly published The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.
I am torn on this book. I like it, but I am also deeply annoyed by some aspects of it. I was more frustrated than I was the first time I read it, possibly because I knew what to expect this time around. On the one hand, I love the vibes. I love books that are set in France, and this one really delivered. I love reading about Addie’s life in Villon-sur-Sarthe, her childhood, her friendship with Estele, you know, all the parts before her village gets together and tries to marry her off. Her life in NYC is similarly spellbinding; the vibes are completely different, of course, but I like seeing the ways she has learned to adapt and survive, and cope with a condition that is, objectively, infuriating. I like that she figures out fairly early on that she cannot survive without art, and she finds a way to make art of her own, even if indirectly. Nor does she merely survive; she is smart and resourceful, and she manages to take advantage of modern comforts – hot baths, penthouse apartments, movie theaters – without ever having a penny to her name. While I don’t care for her habit of casually stealing from former friends and lovers and I don’t think she spends enough time considering the people who might get blamed for her thefts, such as the workers in the upscale boutique whose clothes she shoplifts, I acknowledge that she generally only takes from the people who can afford to have a cashmere scarf or a handful of twenties suddenly go missing. I appreciate that she makes the effort to support small businesses, though this is – by necessity – always on somebody else’s dime. I wouldn’t characterize her as fundamentally dishonest, though certainly morality matters less when you live forever. What is one cashmere scarf compared to eternity?
All the same, Addie isn’t entirely endearing. I respect her without really knowing if I actually like her. In the case of her second encounter with Henry, I am torn between amazement at her nerve and sheer irritation at her very privileged presumption. She literally rolls up on him and asks if she can have a free book in exchange for the one that she shoplifted – granted, without realizing that he is the first person in 300 years to recognize her and remember that she shoplifted the book in the first place, but, curse or no curse, I can’t imagine that line working for anybody who isn’t a pretty French girl. She could’ve at least had the decency to try it at a different bookstore than the one she shoplifted from, but I guess she was feeling lazy that day, or she just liked the vibe of the shop, or she wanted to confirm that Henry didn’t actually remember her, or something. I’m even annoyed with her shoplifting technique. Considering how much her sleight-of-hand skills get lauded throughout the book, you’d think she’d have a better technique than simply tucking the book under her arm and walking off in plain view of the bookseller. Personally, I probably would’ve tried to stuff it into one of those capacious jacket pockets that apparently are big enough to accommodate a bag of muffins. For anyone wondering, American muffins are not small. Even better, I would’ve wrapped up the book in the jacket and then slung the jacket over my arm, and I would’ve done this in a back row out of view of the register. I’m no expert in shoplifting, but this seems fairly basic.
Shoddy shoplifting aside, my main difficulty is Addie’s relationship with Luc, which is mostly unpleasant. If we disregard the inherent imbalance in power, the semi-romantic angle of their relationship is still predictable and unconvincing. I agree that Luc is completely at fault for the parameters of the curse, but it would’ve been nice if Addie had grown just slightly less self-pitying during the 300 years she’s been walking the earth. Had she been given only six months or even ten years, I would have been entirely sympathetic. 300 years is more than enough time to realize that she should’ve been a little more specific during the making of the curse. While there is some acknowledgment that she got herself into this mess, it isn’t enough. There is no point in blaming Luc for acting according to his nature. It’s like asking a tiger for a favor and then spending 300 years hating it when it bites you instead. Even when she needs him to help her, she can’t seem to stop herself from lashing out at him. My biggest peeve is that she never really grasps that Luc is not, as he says, a genie to be summoned at her whim. She knows this on a rational level, but she always steams ahead, expecting that some kind of exception will be made for her. This is understandable when she is 23 and reeling from the fact that everyone she’s ever known has completely forgotten who she is. It is not understandable when she is 323 and 300 years into a curse more or less of her own making.
My other thought is that Addie never seems to venture very far from her comfort zone. I can understand her wanting to stay in France for a while, but would it have killed her to visit a country in which she is not a member of the majority population? Europe and the United States do not comprise even half of the world, and, though she has undeniably lived a vivid life, I would not say that she has lived it to the fullest, the way she seems to feel she has. She speaks so many languages and she adapts so thoroughly to every country she encounters, whether she’s there on purpose or not, that I don’t think it would’ve ruined her vibe if she’d spent some time on a less familiar continent. In 300 years, Bea is the only BIPOC person who has a name and talks to Addie more than once. For a book that is partially set in NYC in fucking 2014, this smells like tokenism, and it is absolutely inexcusable. I’m not ruling out the possibility that Addie has befriended other BIPOC people throughout her life, but, if she has, we never meet them. Though this is more likely to be an unconscious bias than a deliberate decision, this kind of slip-up is hard to overlook in a book that was published in 2020. The characters showcase a range of sexualities, which is wonderful, but that isn’t the only kind of diversity. It shouldn’t have to be a choice between one type of diversity or another.
Overall, I think this was a strong premise, but it suffered in the execution. The writing isn’t great: it’s on the wrong side of pretentious and yet somehow still somewhat childish, all of those paragraph breaks drive me up the wall, and the book in general is very repetitive. It takes maybe two repetitions for “Later, Addie will learn” to get seriously old. Written the way that it is, it feels a little too self-consciously clever in a looking-over-shoulder kind of way, almost as if it was crafted specifically to invite words like “lyrical” and “emotional.” I would’ve killed for a five-sentence paragraph every now and then. The characters are okay, if mostly unmemorable and possibly unhealthily dependent on each other. The uncharitable part of me kind of wants to know if Addie and Henry’s romance would have survived the ages, or at least the length of an average human lifespan, if their curses had not been so compatible. They are compatible in other ways, but, even so, their relationship is a shade too close to trauma-bonding for my liking. And yes I do want them to stay together forever and ever and ever okay because Henry is a sweetie and I want him to find happiness, but that’s not the same as saying I think it would’ve been sustainable under other circumstances.
For the record, I am hoping that Addie does win against Luc, even if only temporarily. I don’t think there’s going to be any such thing as a total victory for either of them, short of Addie’s abject surrender, which is never going to happen. I hope Henry’s book does well, and I especially hope he’s getting treatment for those storms of his. (I say that as a person who also has storms but has been evading treatment my entire adult life. Well, it’s not bad advice.) I hope he will live his life the way Addie lives hers, one second at a time, enjoying the sheer fact of being alive. And, when all is said and done, I dearly hope that Addie and Henry will be able to spend some time together before the end. They’ve been through a lot; surely they’ve earned a little peace.