My relationship with V. E. Schwab’s books is complicated. I loved A Darker Shade of Magic, was incredibly disappointed in its sequel, and found the conclusion to that trilogy only okay. But then I heard what she had taken on in her latest novel, and people – especially ones who didn’t like Schwab’s writing – posted rave reviews about this book. So I got drawn in by the hype and tried it myself. With mixed results.
THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE
by V. E. Schwab
Published: Tor, 2020
eBook: 448 pages
Audiobook: 17 hours 10 minutes
My rating: 5/10
Opening line: A girl is running for her life.
France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever-and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.
Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.
But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore, and he remembers her name.
In the vein of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Life After Life, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is New York Times bestselling author V. E. Schwab’s #1 New York Times Bestselling Author genre-defying tour de force.
I was determined to love this book when I started. A young French girl makes a deal with the devil for eternal life but the price she pays is that everyone immediately forgets her and she can’t leave a mark on the world. She can’t even say her name or write anything down. I mean, what a great idea, what a great sfnal riff on Faust, right? Well…
For a book that I went into wanting to love it, it is truly impressive how much of a let down it turned out to be. There were so many little things that bothered me and they added up to a big pile of dislikes.
First and foremost, the plot was soooooo predictable. I mean, you could guess it after Addie and Henry’s first meeting. Maybe some minor things weren’t obvious from miles away, but all the big plot beats were easy to guess and that took a lot of suspense out of a story that could have been so exciting.
It takes half the novel to even catch up to what we’ve already been told by the synopsis. I’m not saying there weren’t any interesting moments to be found in the first half of the book but there’s nothing truly surprising or innovative. Addie makes a deal with the devil (or a devil), lives forever, is forgotten by everyone and eventually meets one person, one guy, who does remember her. That’s literally what the back of the book says and it takes up half of its pages!
The switches between past and present make the story easy enough to read and I never quite felt bored but I was also never truly hooked. After all, I already knew certain things from the synopsis and reading about them in slightly more detail wasn’t exactly riveting. I did like seeing Addie’s beginnings as a cursed human. Figuring out what exactly her curse means and learning how to live a life – no matter how long – when nobody remembers her, presented quite the challenge. There are so many little things I didn’t consider like renting a place to live, or later opening a bank account, working a job… none of that is possible for Addie because as soon as she’s out of sight people don’t remember who she is. And she couldn’t even sign her name if someone did remember her. It’s a really cool concept and Schwab showed us glimpses of Addie’s trouble finding her way but I was constantly hoping for more depth, more insight into what this does to a person’s mind. Being this non-entity in the eyes of everyone else, never having a place you can call home, not having any friends or relationships that last longer than a few hours… That shit does something to you. But sadly, all we get is telling, not showing, of these troubles and Addie doesn’t really change because of this.
We are shown that Addie grows into quite a good thief (how else should she survive?) and that she becomes rather careless with what she says and to whom because all she has to do is walk away for a few minutes and she gets a do-over. But I felt that Addie was altogether too normal for a 300-year-old woman who has been lonely for 277 of them. The weight of those years never really got through in the writing and neither does Addie feel like someone with that amount of life experience. Wouldn’t every young person seem to be dreadfully boring and naive to her? Would she even want to be friends with people the age she looks?
And holy shit, wouldn’t living through wars, revolutions, scientific discoveries, and seeing different places of the world change you in some way? A person who lives 300 years, no matter where they started, should be anything but normal! And yet, Addie was exactly the same in the flashback chapters as she was in the present ones, and neither version was particularly interesting.
The characters in general are super one-dimensional. All we learn about Addie is that she wants to be free and she’s stubborn, not willing to give into the Darkness who keeps coming back asking for her soul. Henry is also defined only by the fact that he wants to be loved and never feels like he’s enough… Sure, Addie is into art and tries to leave her mark on the world by inspiring artists to create something that she cannot. But that’s all there is. She has lived through several wars and by 2014, she still hasn’t found anything new to interest her?
The Darkness could have been a cool villain but Schwab is so enamoured with his looks that she rarely has anything to say about him other than the changing shade of his green eyes or how his dark curls hang into his face. I must have read a variation of that exact description about 50 times in this book and – suprisingly – it didn’t make him a more interesting character, it just annoyed the shit out of me. I DON’T CARE WHAT COLOR HIS EYES ARE OR HOW SEXILY HIS HAIR HANGS INTO HIS FACE!!! Give him a personality, please!
The trope of super old being falling in love with a young person has been annyoing me forever – I don’t care if it’s vampires or immortal humans or gods. Just because someone looks 23 doesn’t mean a romance with an actual 28-year-old guy would make sense. Addie speaks a dozen languages, has read so many books, experienced so much – again, including multiple wars and other things that would be traumatic to anyone else – and yet she doesn’t feel… understimulated talking to Henry who hasn’t figured out his life yet because he’s just 28 years old? I’m not trying to be mean or pretend like young people can’t be wise or clever (I’m in my mid-thirties so I’m not much wiser than Henry), but I just find it so unbelievable that an age gap this large wouldn’t at least have some impact on a relationship. For the sake of a cheesy love story with no chemistry whatsoever, in this book it doesn’t.
My other major gripe kind of ties into the whole 300-year-old Addie problem. We read alternating chapters about the present where Addie meets Henry and Addie’s past, slowly catching up the past chapters to where she is now. And there was soooooo much potential for cool stuff in those past chapters because ADDIE HAS LIVED 300 YEARS AND HAS SEEN SOME SHIT! But do we get to see any of that? Spoiler alert: Nope!
Addie lives in Paris, in Florence, in Venice, London, New York, New Orleans, all those interesting and exciting places, and especially set during exciting times. Sometimes terrible times, yes, but exciting to read about. But Schwab apparently didn’t feel like actually taking us on Addie’s journey (or maybe she didn’t want to do all that research) because most of those chapters focus on unimportant things, and many (oh so many) are just Addie and the Darkness repeating their age-old conversation about whether she’s finally ready to give up and hand over her soul.
The telling-instead-of-showing flaw was more obvious than ever in those chapters because Schwab likes counting off things that Addie has recently witnessed or wants to see in her near future. Like the Eiffel Tower being built for example. But why not just take us there and let us feel her wonder at actually seeing it?? No, Schwab chose her settings for ultimate boredom and contented herself with letting Addie make lists in her head about all the cool stuff we could have read about if the author had bothered writing it.
Speaking of taking out the suspense – Addie is immortal. So we know she can’t die by natural means or be killed. That’s part of her deal. She lives as long as she wants to until she’s ready to stop and give her soul to the Darkness. So whenever Addie gets into danger (being cornered by guards, caught stealing, what have you), we know nothing can possibly happen to her. So while those scenes at least show a different side of Addie’s long life, they weren’t all that engaging because we knew she’d get out of it easily. And if things appeared to go really bad (she can’t be killed, but people can still hurt her), the Darkness shows up conveniently to whisk her away. After that happens twice, you kind of know that the next time she’s in danger, he’s going to show up again and point his sexy green eyes at her while having his dark curls fall onto his forehead.
All of that said, the book is still very readable. Readable… this stupid word means something different to everyone, but to me it means easily flowing prose, something you can pick up and read for an hour without noticing the time or pages go by. Although Schwab throws in occasional poetic sentences and a ton of lines that should feel important but aren’t because I just didn’t care about the characters, her writing is quite simple and easy to follow. Apart from the excessive use of the word “palimpsest”, the language isn’t difficult or flowery (which is part of the problem because she could have used language to set the scene, to create atmosphere whenever Addie was in a new place or we see her living in a different time… but yeah, there’s wasted potential all over this book).
The fact that the chapters are really, really short is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it makes you read more (just one more chapter, it’s just 5 pages) and a curse because none of those chapters let you breathe long enough to immerse yourself in the time or place it’s set in. If I only get to spend half a page with some guy Addie sleeps with, why should I care about him 50 pages later? To me, the reader, he is an unimportant character, a name that was mentioned once. He may mean something to Addie but it’s the author’s job to make him mean something to us as well.
What ultimately disappointed me so much was that this is such a cool idea that could have been a great novel in the hands of someone more capable. I didn’t feel the romance at all, I didn’t care about Addie’s many past lovers (because we never get a chance to get to know them properly), and I could predict every single “twist” plus the ending from very early on. You’d think it would feel nice to be proven right when reading a book – like, yay I knew this was coming – but it actually takes all the pleasure out of it. I wanted to be surprised, I wanted to be emotionally engaged, I wanted to care whether Addie and Henry stayed together, whether she could get out of her curse somehow, whether her long life would actually mean anything in the end.
Unfortunately (and nobody is more bummed out about this than me) everything about this book fell flat. From cheesy lines to endless repetitions of the same conversations, to the wasted potential of 300 years’ worth of history left unexplored.
I wanted to like this book so badly and I’m crushed it turned out to be a shallow, trope-ridden romance that has nothing much to say about its characters, art, or history. The only upside is that, among the many brilliant 2020 publications, I can safely leave this one off my Hugo nomination ballot…
This novel’s biggest – and its most ironic – fault is how utterly forgettable it is.
MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh