Once upon a time, there was a girl who wished for unfettered freedom, a life completely her own, untethered to time and space and people. While many books may explore the journey to achieve such a wish, THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE instead examines the consequences and the prices paid. Addie’s memorable journey is a clear defiance to her curse to a fault. In its single-minded pursuit to capture the life of Addie Larue, this book neglected to acknowledge the existence of marginalised communities who were erased not through Faustian bargains, but by colonialism, classism, and white supremacy. Addie’s story is fixated on her own legacy, yet her narrative is one that conveniently forgets the people history would rather leave unremembered.
Addie Larue’s intractable desire for freedom resulted in centuries lived on the margin of society, the inability to utter her own name, and the loneliness of belonging to no one but yourself. Her only marks on the world are ones left by a ghost, a forgotten muse, an unnamed thought. She voraciously take refuge in stories, seeking out narrative to replace her own tale devoid of ending and permanence – she sought for company in the pages of dusty books, between the notes of forgotten songs, on screens in darkened cinema theatres. It’s a compelling start to the novel, the image of a forgettable immortal, literally hell-bent on leaving traces of her story through the visions of artists through the centuries.
Where Addie Larue excelled was in Schwab’s lyrical and distinctive prose, effortlessly capturing the weight of centuries in a few sentences. When coupled with Julie Whelan’s (yes, the same person who brought Evelyn Hugo to life) audiobook narration, a voice which lent emotion to each polished phrase, the result is unparalleled. I loved that Whelan’s accent for Addie changed with the passage of time, gradually losing her country French lilt as she ventures further from the girl she once was. While the book flitted between the past and the present in quick succession, the structure of the story allowed for seamless transition that mimicked the timeless yet repetitious nature of Addie’s existence. In fact, the writing was so mesmerizing that it took me over half the novel to figure out why the book left me feeling uneasy: by its casual but constant omission of BIPOC from Addie’s myopic and white-washed centuries of existence.
Believe it or not, I am not someone who demands that every single novel I read be the paragon of diversity. You may make the argument that while Addie Larue lacked in diverse racial representation, it compensated by the presence of bisexual, pansexual, and neurodiverse protagonists. However, the issue with Addie Larue’s account of history, one devoid of any persons of colour and scrubbed clean of the gristly side of revolutions – is a problem that impact the believability of her story. I can invest in a world where Luc is the Darkness is personified, where a girl painted by stars learn to live through stories in her long centuries. What I classify as poor world-building and characterisation that breaks the illusion of verisimilitude are the following.
Addie Larue’s character is determined to live through all of life’s experiences and relish in the small joys of discovery. She bargained with the Luc for several life times because she wants to explore the world. Yet when the wish is granted, however twisted it may be, Addie Larue is not compelled to venture further than Europe and North America. A backpacker with a tight budget can cover more ground in three months than Addie does in three centuries. Every time Addie Larue closes her eyes and reminisce, a litany of cities passing through her mind like a prayer (or a Top Deck itinerary), she revisits the same places: Milan, Paris, New York, Amsterdam, Madrid. You’re telling me she lived for 300 years and did not want to visit Asia, or Africa, or South America, or the Middle East even once? I understand how that may have been difficult initially, but she lived through the invention of air travel and the commodification of oversea holidays, and she managed to teach herself a long list of languages (yes, all Western languages) – so for her to choose to settle in NYC by 2014? Beyond perplexing and does not align with the rest of her characterisation. There are many possible reasons why Schwab was so reluctant to include other nations in her vision of Addie Larue, but I suspect she’s treading down the well-worn path of many other fantasy writers before her: one that cannot imagine BIPOC culture as a part of their aesthetic and world.
* Note that there is one prominent Black character that appears in this novel, Henry’s best friend, Bea. Who we are told, in explicit wording and no less than five times, is one of the most stunning person Addie has ever seen. I had to chuckle when I read these passages, it’s the literary equivalent of “I’m not racist, my best friend is Black.”
I saw in one of the book tours that Schwab intended this novel to be a homage to the women that history erased. After reading Addie Larue, I can only conclude that by ‘women’, she meant white women. In fact, by women, she only meant women like Addie Larue – who fit into the narrow confines of ‘strong female characters’. The women who appear in Addie’s past remain unnamed or inconsequential to the events which unfold. The way she describe her childhood friend, who chose an ordinary life of domestic bliss, is nothing short of condescending. She describes childbirth as a parasite that drains away Isabelle’s vitality, as soon as the woman has children she is viewed as a withered flower. I know we cannot judge an author from the actions of their characters. Yet we have seen a similar value system from other Schwab female leads, from Lila Bard to Kate Harker, and this line of thinking has never been challenged in any of Schwab’s text – so it’s difficult to believe this is not her general world view. Realising that one of the leading woman writer in SFF can only dream up of one type of female character? Beyond disappointing.
Despite the aforementioned desire to pay respect to the forgotten women of history, the figures that Addie mentions through her centuries of existence are often privileged white men. She name drops Voltaire who she mingled with in Parisian salon, the height of culture and a testament to her desire for education – yet makes no mention of his infamous anti-Semitism and anti-Blackness rhetoric. The book refers to Napoleon Bonaparte, with the Luc praising his ‘ambition’, in contrast to the ‘evil’ that culminated in the World Wars. Yet there are no further introspection on this – no acknowledgement that part of Napoleon’s ambitions included an attempt to invade Egypt, and resulted in the looting of countless cultural artifacts. We are told time and again that Addie Larue has witnessed the uprise and liberation of nations, the ignition and triumphs of revolution – however I get the sense that she remains resolutely untouched. Her sole concern is her eternal dance with the Luc, testing the limits of a metaphorical prison conjured by her curse- with little regard for the literal chains shackling the humans around her.
One of the main threads of Addie Larue is the way Addie uses art to carve out a space in history. She curates her own collection of artists through the years, intent on leaving her mark in paintings and songs. Over time, one of her favourite hobbies is to visit museums and see the traces of herself displayed on walls, an act of resistance to her curse. The art and the artists that are selected are always conspicuously white, the text goes on to describe the way she’s irresistibly drawn to certain talents – an echo of how the Luc is attracted to certain souls: Beethoven, Bonaparte, Joan of Arc. Why is Addie and her devil intent on ignoring BIPOC who existed alongside them through the centuries, many of whom would have burned with the same desire to be recognised in an otherwise cruel and uncaring world?
I understand what this book was trying to achieve, and the reason for its singular focus on Addie’s legacy and the desire to attain recognition and immortality through arts. What I struggled with was how self-absorbed this work was, while reading it I had the subconscious feeling that the book wholeheartedly believe that Addie’s narrative is the only one worth preserving. It’s quite a feat for a protagonist who lived from 1710s to 2010s, one of the most turbulent period in human history, rife with revolution and colonolisation (and she lived in FRANCE, one of the biggest perpetrator of colonisation, I am Vietnamese – it’s not easy for me to overlook this) to remain utterly self-interested. She acted as a spy in a war once, and quickly gave up on that when she realised her immortality did not come with invincibility. The average teenager on twitter these days have more self-awareness and perform more activism than a woman who watched injustices go by for 300 years, I find that faintly embarrassing.
Aside from the issues I had with the text, I truly believed they contributed to the stagnation in Addie Larue by the midway mark. The book felt aimless at times. more concerned with portraying aesthetics and ideas than it was with the execution of the story. I just know that Schwab’s notebook for Addie Larue must have been filled with the phrases like ‘palimpsest’, ‘ideas are more wild than memories’, ‘freckles that trailed her face like a constellation‘, and musings on the mercurial nature of time. These sentences were repeated ad nauseum in the book, not in a way that felt poetically intentional, but with the restricted cadence of a book trapped by its initial vision yet never saw complete fulfilment. In a way, I guess it’s fitting that a book about a girl who is damned from living a full life also feels equally unfinished.
I felt that this book could have been more, it could have aspired to touch more than just Addie Larue’s life. Nonetheless, it remained frustratingly self-satisfied with its selective recollection of the past. Addie Larue is a celebration of art and life – but only in the limited scope of what it can understand as art, and what it counts as a life worth honouring. The marketing hashtag for this book is #IRememberAddie, and how could you not? She left no room for readers to remember anyone else.