JOINT REVIEW: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
Janine: I saw this standalone fantasy novel on Goodreads and it intrigued me. Since Sirius and I have both favorably reviewed V.E. Schwab’s previous book, A Darker Shade of Magic, I asked her if she wanted to review The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue together. She said yes.
The story concerns Addie LaRue, a young woman living in Villon, a small village in France, circa 1714. Addie wants freedom and independence. She manages to derail unwanted courtships until the age of twenty-three, when her parents try to force her into a loveless marriage.
Addie resists. Estelle, an older woman and Addie’s friend, has taught Addie that there are old gods who can be called on to help, but don’t always do so. Estelle also said that gods should never be called on after dark. Addie tries to call on the daytime gods but has no success. At the last moment she runs into the woods and accidentally calls on a dark god.
Luc, as Addie later names him, is willing to grant Addie’s wish for freedom and independence if she sells her soul, and Addie is desperate enough to be amenable. But when he asks how long she plans to live, she says she will surrender her soul when she feels she has lived long enough.
That night Addie discovers that no one in Villon remembers her; every time she is out of their sight, they forget she exists. Luc has made her free in a way she never wants to be free. She leaves Villon for the city of Le Mans and later roams from there to Paris and then other places.
Addie’s life is tiring and hard; she lives through frozen winter with no shelter, through a plague, fire, the French Revolution and more. She cannot die, but she can feel pain, like the pain of being stabbed or of freezing nearly to death. She can’t hold on to physical objects for long, and since she can’t hold a job or sign a lease she must steal, scrounge, and crash at empty or boarded-up dwellings to have enough to eat and a place to sleep.
Whenever Addie is harmed, every sign of it quickly disappears. Addie cannot write or draw or leave a mark of any kind on the world, except when she guides an artist or a musician and they create an image of her or a song about her. Even then, her face is obscured and her name unsung. She can’t share her name with anyone; it is always caught in her throat when she tries. She has to give everyone, even her lovers, a false name.
And every day people forget her. The only relationships Addie can have are ones where the other person forgets her over and over. Occasionally she has to sell her body. Sometimes she spends only a night with someone. Sometimes she has a relationship that lasts one or two months, but her lover always views it as the first day of a relationship. The next day she has to start over again with them.
Every once in a while, on the anniversary of the date he granted her wish, Luc visits her and asks her if she’s tired of living yet. And although she hates Luc, Addie starts to crave his visits because he is the only being in the world who knows who she is and remembers her. But then a miraculous thing happens. In a used bookstore, she meets Henry, a young man who remembers who she is the next time they meet.
(The review is tagged as LGBTQ because Henry and Addie are both bisexual, with same-sex relationships in their pasts.)
I’d like to start out discussion by asking what you thought of the story concept, Sirius. Although I had a lot of problems with the book, I thought the concept was wonderful. As soon as I read the blurb, I wanted to read the book.
I have never read anything with this premise, although Addie’s powers and magic-related vulnerabilities do remind me of a couple of other books. One of these is Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, because like Henry, the time traveler in that book, Addie can’t hold on to possessions. Just as Henry in TTTW has to scrounge for survival every time he time travels—steal and find places to shelter—Addie has to do the same thing.
The other book this novel reminds me of was Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Through the vampire Louis’s story, as with Addie’s, we come to understand that immortality can take a toll. That it’s tiring to live so long and to see the people you once knew age and die. But at the same time, the evolution of new technologies and of our way of life provide rewards, things to marvel at.
I loved those two books (at the time they came out, I can’t say how they hold up) so I felt and still feel that the premise is terrific, even if the execution is not. You?
Sirius: Yes, the concept grabbed me. A deal with the devil is not a new thing, but the way it was described absolutely made me want to read the book. I did not particularly care about execution either. What specifically bothered you about execution?
Janine: Oh God, where do I start? So many things. I am going to list and number them, and please feel free to jump in between and insert your thoughts and opinions.
(1) All the characters lacked depth. Addie was pretty much a one, well, two notes character. The two notes being “How do I survive another day when no one remembers me?” and “It sucks that no one remembers me.” Luc also had two notes, “Do you surrender now?” and “I like showing up in your life every once in a while, to torment you.”
If Addie’s note one had been in conflict with her note two, that could have been interesting because it would have given her an internal conflict. But that wasn’t the case. Luc’s two notes I suppose are in conflict, but it’s not a strong conflict because it’s not like he’s torn up about how #1 can foil #2. He’s too shallow to feel conflicted.
Henry is a bit more carefully shaded than the Addie and Luc but he has no driving goal and not much agency relative to the other two. He’s not in the same league because his life has been smaller and less expansive than theirs. They are larger-than-life figures and he is not.
This being the case, I was bored by all three of them.
Sirius: Absolutely – same reaction from me. Addie drove me crazy by the end of the book. I was thinking something along the lines – woman, you are over 300 years old. Can we have some wisdom obtained by your character through the years? I get that you want to be remembered. Man, it was drilled into me, but can I see some other layers of your character? Boring.
Luc, well, Luc I just laughed at. I actually often like characters like him, but not really like him – tall, dark and handsome and * really conflicted*. Of course I did not see a strong conflict in him (or any conflict really – as you said, it was not as if he was really conflicted between his number one and two), but I just could not feel him as a being of any kind. We were told that he is primal darkness, right? I read him as pagan personification of Satan and I just don’t think that attempt to make him feel something was done well. I did not even buy that he really wanted Addie, I felt like he was playing games and all he wanted was to get her soul faster. I suppose he felt like caricature to me – I get he was supposed to be scary, but I did not even feel that. I am not sure why.
Janine: That’s a great point, that he wasn’t even scary. There was something childish about him. It was like Addie was a toy he didn’t want taken away.
Sirius: And agreed about Henry, but also besides him not being a larger than life character, his motivation for having to deal with his issue the way he did just made little sense to me – I guess that was the whole point that feelings and not the rational mind was involved.
Janine: Yeah, I just read it that he had severe depression and it made anything painful torture him.
(2) The main conflict was between Addie and Luc, her “How can I survive another day when no one remembers me?” and his “Do you surrender now?” Since neither one of them cares that much about something else, that’s all that there is to play out for most of the book. So the novel was mostly that conflict repeated over and over. Constant and mind-numbing repetition.
Sirius: Yes, this so much, we seem to agree a lot about this book :). “Constant and mind – numbing repetition.”
Janine: We do.
(3) Not only did Addie bore me, I also didn’t like her that much. She was a loner for most of her life. True, not by choice. But if a character doesn’t feel love for someone else, they can come across as self-centered and Addie did so here.
Sirius: I liked her initially – I understood her desire to get out of the life prepared for her by the circumstances but I got tired of her fast based on what we had discussed above. Poor me, me, me.
Janine: Agreed. She was likable at first but not for long.
Sirius: I appreciated it was shown that she was helping during the war at least.
Janine: I perked up at that at first but it ended up being another disappointment for me since we were told about it but didn’t see her helping in action. I also wasn’t sure how she could accomplish it given no one could remember her.
(4) The next thing that disappointed me was the underdevelopment of the settings. One of the things that attracted me to this book was the promise of multiple historical settings. I was looking forward to a journey through three centuries. But the settings weren’t very distinct. Some examples of the historical settings were a riverbank, a stable, a restaurant, a church cemetery, a jail, a variety of bedrooms. Most of these have not changed much in the past few centuries, so I didn’t feel transported to different places in time.
Sirius: Normally settings are very important to me, be it historical or fantasy worlds, I love detailed settings, but in this book I did not even think about the details in setting, I was too concentrated on what you said in the beginning just how few notes all the main characters have. I was too bored and did not really care one way or another, although of course I would have appreciated detailed ones.
Janine: (5) The language was also repetitive. How many times do we need to have Addie’s experiences compared to a palimpsest, or her freckles described as a constellation of seven stars? How many times do we need to read about Luc’s changeable green eyes? Certain points were hammered too much, too. There was an ongoing theme about memory that offered nothing new. That memories gradually fade even when we want to remember them is obvious. There was no need for it to be stated over and over.
Okay, my next question is this—what did you like about the book?
Sirius: This is hard :). As I said I loved the idea, I thought Addie had all the potential to be a cool character, same with Luc. I thought Henry’s tenderness to Addie (and hers to him) was nice, I loved his bookstore. Actually I thought the theme of hidden fun places in New York. (hidden eateries and other fun things) was very nicely done. I think it made me sad thinking that I cannot really go exploring during the pandemic, but I cannot wait to do so when we are back to more normal times. I have been in New York for twenty-three years and I don’t think I know much about this city at all.
What about you Janine what did you like?
Janine: I agree on Addie and Luc’s potential. The bookstore was good and I liked the bookstore cat. I liked the repeating dynamic with Henry’s friend Bea, how every time she “first met” Addie she would make the same observation. Some of the stuff with Addie’s ex, Sam, was also nice. I liked these because they reminded me of the time loop trope and that’s a trope I like.
I also liked when Addie crashed in an apartment of a former lover who was an actor away on shoot. It was interesting how comfortable she was. She made herself at home because she could; if she spilled or damaged something it would clean itself up within a few minutes. That was a nice scene because it highlighted that aspect of her life.
The exploration of secret places in New York was cool but it also frustrated me. I wanted more setting detail and we got it there but that just made me frustrated that there wasn’t more detail in the other settings.
The way the central conflict resolved surprised me. I didn’t see the way it happened coming. I had some clues so it wasn’t a total surprise but the exact way it played out wasn’t what I expected. I also didn’t anticipate the direction Luc and Addie’s interactions took in the last flashbacks we got. I guess my surprise was good? But it was too little too late.
Did anything in the book surprise you, Sirius?
Sirius: I mean, I cannot say that I could predict the plot in every detail, not really. I think mostly because I was bored, I was not even sure if I can count it as a surprise. What you said about Luc and Addie’s interactions taking a surprising turn in the final flashbacks – yes I guess I can agree with it, but when I read I did not really care so I did not really feel it was that surprising. I have to feel something about the plot twist for it to be surprising – shock, happiness, etc. I did not.
Oh, I know. It really does not bode well for my plot analyzing skills I suppose, but what happened to Henry actually surprised me. Initial thing that he revealed to Addie – I have not seen it coming, although of course I should have.
Janine: I don’t think we can infer much about your skill at plot analysis from one example but I did figure this one out very early. My husband didn’t though.
Sirius: Also speaking about flashbacks. I usually am okay with the flashbacks, if I think it was well executed. I didn’t think it worked well for me in this book at all. I felt as if it constantly interrupted the character development – I wanted to see Addie grow as a character and instead flashbacks constantly threw me back and I just felt annoyed.
Janine: What is your grade for the book, Sirius? Many readers love it and it has garnered a lot of attention so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was nominated for a Hugo and / or one or two other SFF awards. I’m an outlier, I guess. I think this may be the last V.E. Schwab book I read. A Darker Shade of Magic was better but even there I wanted the characters to have more dimension. Depth of characterization is one of my top desires when I choose what book to read, so I don’t think Schwab is for me. As for this one, I’m giving it a C-.
Sirius: We really agree about most things about this book. I feel the same way. C- for me as well.