The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab was picked for our April 2021 book club, which ran under the theme 'female protagonists'. It was one of the most anticipated reads, and we all saw the five-star hype that surrounds this book. Yet many of our members sat in Building 6 on the fateful night of book club wearing matching incredulous expressions (half-hidden under masks because we’re always Covid safe). Since then, Addie – ever the inspiration, though maybe not in the way Schwab envisioned – has achieved meme status on the LitSoc Discord.
So I’ve roped in Erin and Liam from the Exec team to discuss the book. Erin previously gave the novel a scathing two-star review, while Liam thinks that Addie deserves more credit than we’ve given her.
SPOILER WARNING: If you have not started – or have not finished – The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, DO NOT READ! Then again, if you want to know what the fuss is about, who am I to stop you?
Erin: I think, in general, when a book is at that 500–600 page mark, you are expecting that each critical storytelling structure – the introduction, the rising action, the climax and everything else – will be of a standard that makes you want to keep reading. With Schwab the story was initially exciting. There was a really cool exposition where we see Addie’s life, and we kind of sympathise with her plight of marrying someone she does not want. The deal she makes with the devil definitely suggests this could be an interesting plot. But then the lights, the glitter and the veil are torn down and what we are left with is a hagged, repetitive plot. Everytime we see Addie in a new time period the same thing happens: she meets someone (usually a man), she briefly idealises being with them, they forget, she meets Luc who taunts her, she vows she will keep living and then she leaves. The only thing that may briefly allow the curtains to rise up and the shout of, 'the show is commencing,' to be heard is towards the end of the book. The moment when Addie finds out about Henry and the ongoing conflict with Luc is probably one of the most exciting moments. However, when you have a perfectly good cake sitting in front of you, freshly baked and in its prime, you would not wait to eat the cake seven days later. You get to it immediately. So I was lost when Addie’s story really started to take shape at the end.
Also, for a book where its own writer celebrates Addie’s free-will and growth, you would think the plot would develop into something more dynamic. You would think the character would also develop and the story would diversify. Not remain the same. The story had so much promise, but seriously, giving me the same story again and again for almost 400 pages – it’s not worth it. Save the trees and cut your book down.
Liam: I disagree with Erin’s view that novels or literature in general that extends into high page numbers means that it has to be written alongside a traditional structured storyline as she outlined. I think with literature in general we are seeing a shift into less plot-driven narratives and more character-driven experiences that relate a lot more to human features and experiences and ultimately provide us with much greater insight and knowledge when we walk away from texts. However, Erin summarises what we see with Addie well – there’s excitement at the start, and I’m sure whatever your view of the novel is, the premise will always sound really interesting, but then it does fall into repetition for a few hundred pages. Now, do I hate that Schwab did that? No, not particularly. In fact, I think the mundane nature of the storyline built up the tension that was required to make Henry’s entrance notable. If we had simply skipped those periods then we wouldn’t have come to understand and realise the extent of Addie’s isolation from those around her, and so I do agree with Schwab’s choice of sticking to this storyline. In saying this, THIS is where she should have come out and developed Addie and Luc further – this would’ve been a fantastic time to do so. During Addie’s isolation, surely her relationship with Luc, quite literally the only other person(ish) who can remember her, would have developed further. And, although the author does try to take this path, I don’t think it was given exactly the right kind of TLC that was needed to make it a really well-rounded experience or narrative. I also think that if this part had been done correctly we could have seen a more dynamic ending with Addie and the choices she had to make.
Liam: Schwab is a masterful writer, and her writing provided a wonderful depth and focus to the themes tackled throughout the novel. I think it is interesting that the first kind of themes pulled out a lot of the time when discussing the book are those themes listed in the question around beauty and value, but I would suggest far more of the book is dedicated to darker and more sinister themes that are cleverly built into Schwab’s characterisation. As we focus on Addie, we can see this yearning, which is an overwhelming ideal purported throughout the novel – a yearning for love, for freedom, for escape, for choice, for impact and, at times, for help. Schwab explores what it means to want and desire in all its forms. At the heart of this hunger is the notion of just being someone. It raises a perplexing question that we see arise throughout all stages of the life we live – if you can’t prove it happened, did it? If you can’t review, consider and reflect on something then what is the point? And what does this lead us to believe or consider about the human condition?
However, this is more complex than a surface-level plea. We get a view into different power dynamics and how these play out throughout Addie’s life – how, in the pursuit of desire, want and belonging, she’s continually at a disadvantage and subjected to abuse and domination from Luc. For 300 years we get to see this relationship develop and grow, and it is ultimately tested towards the back end of the novel with Henry.
Interwoven into these ideals are questions around independence and free will, which are ultimately significant themes of the novel and link to the understanding of the power dynamics at play. Although, the notion of free will stretches beyond just being able to make decisions around what your life looks like or what actions you can or can’t take – it also raises complicated questions around memory and what you’re remembered for. Do we ever get to decide what we are ultimately remembered for? Even if we have autonomy over our actions? Once we’re gone, we can’t dictate what sticks and what doesn’t. We have no power over that, and it’s scary that we could go a full life in the driver’s seat yet at some point we must let go and let the forces that be decide that fate. So, when you consider that element of free will it illustrates a comprehensive deep dig orchestrated by Schwab into these nuanced understandings of things we do not like to talk about – death, power, memory and legacy.
I think it’s also probably necessary to indicate that I didn’t rate this book five stars. Do I agree with the assertions made by Erin and other members of the society about its value and/or worth – no, but I do think there were several things that Schwab could have explored in more detail. I think that in some ways Schwab had the right pieces. In fact, I prefer the characterisation of Henry over Addie. He seems to be a more interesting and dynamic figure (and he only exists in New York! For a few decades!) than Addie, and I love the parts of the book where we really get to see that shine. Ultimately, I think we can really see Schwab’s connection with the struggles of Henry – his complex and multifaceted struggles with experiences of mental ill-health are a poignant reflection of Schwab’s own, and we can see the pain leak through the pages from her own story. He feels a lot more real, and so I think when we do explore these issues and challenging themes around existentialism it feels more applicable to someone who lives a life somewhat similar to experiences we may have had ourselves, whereas Addie just has an inherent disconnect with audiences over Henry.
Erin: Ok so, I really love Liam’s response, it is very dynamic and considered. Expanding on Liam’s notion of the free will theme and how it encompasses more than decision making skills and the grey area surrounding whether we can control our impact on others: I do think this is a theme that attempts to filter into Addie’s characterisation through to the readers. However, these ideals of independence and free will that Schwab so delicately tries to bring in fail. Schwab tries to demonstrate that Addie is full of free will, yet most of her actions and choices are dictated by trying to escape Luc and going to places he wouldn’t expect. Even Addie’s apparent defiance to Luc – to not give in and remain alive – is not completely autonomous. She is driven by spite and wants to prove him wrong. Is this really independence? Is this really free will? Addie lives life as a puppet, though the strings are not visible so she seems free, while Luc is the malicious figure that subconsciously influences her every decision. I think there is a part in the book where Addie reflects on her choice and thinks about what could have been. This is a flicker of her so-called free will and independent thinking. However, it does not carry on and once again we succumb to the smoke and mirror portrayal that Addie is free when she really is not.
Going back to Liam’s look at the theme of beauty, I think this is one element that Schwab does carry throughout the book in a sophisticated way. The inclusion of a piece of literature, art or some other representation of Addie’s distinct features is a testament to the way that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and how artists can create their own form of beauty through their creations. The continual reference to Addie’s freckles and beauty does, however, become a bit draining. We now only associate Addie with her physical beauty. Echoing the sentiment above, if Schwab were to demonstrate autonomy, then part of Addie’s impact on others should not have been reduced to her freckles. There is also another instance, which I expand on in a later response, where the character Beatrice is reduced to her physical appearance. Addie is taken aback by her beauty and continually comments on it. I think the flaw with orienting a book around beauty is that it can become shallow and provide a misguided message that the only way to standout is to be beautiful.
Furthermore, reflecting back on Liam’s belief regarding the characterisation of Henry in relation to the themes, I did find it hard to connect these themes to Henry. Henry, to me, came across as a stereotypical and generalised perception of a person experiencing mental ill-health. There were definitely complexities to be unpacked and an opportunity for Schwab to dig deeper into the darker themes of pain, and how pain can equally be married to joy, relief and a whole range of human emotions. However, most of Henry’s characterisation is monotonous and does not demonstrate the range of feelings that he is going through. His pain and suffering is portrayed as the main thing that defines him. While I do think that compared to Addie he seemed more real, I do not think Henry was a completely relatable character. In saying that, I do commend Schwab on trying to bring in more relatable themes through Henry such as pain, sadness and ideas concerning our place in the world. I do think leaving a character like that towards the end with very muted characterisation and growth does not do them any justice. To incorporate these themes of existentialism, identity and pain, they need to be continually developed. It cannot be a matter of talking about pain as singular, without digging into the way it evolves and plateaus and how pain can be numbed by feelings of happiness and other human emotions. Such complexities in humanity need to be celebrated and be given the space to be heard.
Erin: A good character arc is one where we see the character grow and develop. As they age and encounter new things, their perceptions change and they may become wiser, more reflective. Typically, you would not expect a character to remain the same completely. But alas, I speak too soon, there is an exception and that is Addie.
At the start, Addie’s naivety and rash decision making, purely based on emotion, makes sense as she is a hormonal teenager. She is growing, her emotional development is still taking place. And so I understand why she was so naive and did not properly think through what the deal with the devil would entail. But with each time jump it seems she is forever trapped in the body of a teenager. The fact that Addie, a mere 300-year-old, does not have some wise views or more understanding of the world and humans and power astounds me. For someone who can keep learning and learning, she does not develop. For example, whenever she goes to a new place we do not see her marveling or wondering at what the world is doing. Like when the world war was happening and she was more preoccupied with seducing someone and feeling remembered. I might give Addie some leniency, since she may still feel some sort of resentment towards not being remembered. However, you have to think that if you are standing there and telling Luc, no you cannot get me, I will keep persevering, then do it. Stop getting stuck trying to impact people and think about how you are being impacted, what you are learning.
I also find that the resolution of her character arc was disappointing. This whole book is meant to be a homage to cisgender female empowerment and the notion of free-will. Instead of seeing Addie stand up to Luc and escape, and maybe realise she was wrong and should not have made the deal, she concedes to him. Yet she operates under the guise that she has the power. I find this severely delusional. I think part of her wanted to be with Luc because of those messed up feelings of love towards him. Pretending that she will get one over him and wasting another 300 years in the same routine is not growth at all. Zara’s statement definitely resonates with this idea of her being delusional and stuck in a fantasy. I would not have minded if Addie did go with Luc and gave us some plan on how she would escape and become free. And yet we get nothing, just an empty promise, a dream that she has. It reminds me of the American Dream, an unattainable pursuit, yet people will continue to strive for it because it is all they know. It makes me sad that Addie does not find an identity outside of being briefly remembered by artists. Why can’t she find self-fulfilment and love for herself?
On another note, the continual reference to her seven freckles always perplexed me. It was so odd to me that artists would use her as their muse purely because of her freckles. I feel like, if Schwab was to create an alluring character, Addie should have been a muse for all of her life experiences, for her knowledge and awareness of humanity. Yet, we define her by seven freckles??? I feel that the freckles are a somewhat unremarkable trait, with many other people having more freckles than she would ever have. I think it is a let down by Scwhab to reduce what it meant to be a free-willed and independent person to a beauty trait.
Liam: I agree with a lot of what Erin has said. We really needed to see more from Addie throughout the novel to demonstrate the kind of growth and development you would be expecting from the character. Was Schwab commenting on the fact that without impact or relationships we are unable to grow? Maybe? Should she have tackled this question in a collection of essays rather than this particular fiction piece? I think so. I’m not sure that this came through effectively. This is especially true at the end of the book when Addie’s decisions were disappointing to say the least. If you just consider her actions at the beginning and the end, it is very very clear that this is exactly the same girl with the same mindset making those choices.
So no, I don’t think the character arc was satisfying. Was it bad? No. Schwab has a talent and she does a lot of things right, but I do think on this occasion we could have seen further development.
Liam: I want to try and keep my answer short here because I think that a lot of this is inherently connected to a lot of the other underlying themes and explorations of the wider novel – so if you’re asking if I think they made sense, then the answer is kind of? I mean, like, I think her relationship or issues or whatever you wish to call it with Luc needed to be explored a lot further to develop into a more interesting and fruitful relationship that provided value to the wider story. I think it was set up nicely; however, we didn’t get to see that dynamic really shift (unless you count the ending), so I think if I was to look at my wish list, we’d see some more Luc and Addie exploration. But, in saying that, Henry was everything I was after, and so I’m team Henry. I think that he provided a great balance to the story through his own battles with mental ill-health, which extended into his own relationship with Luc. I think that he really gave a lot of value to the book, and without him the whole Addie concept would not have made much, or any, sense (or been of any reading value, as I don’t think I could read a book of just her bouncing around). The relationships with these characters did provide a lot of valuable insight, particularly, as I’ve said before, in regard to the notions around power dynamics, which would have been impossible (as no one could remember her!) without Luc, so we’re limited to only seeing that perspective.
You didn’t ask for this, but my favourite ideas or notions stemming from her relationships are kind of what her legacy looks like – because, ultimately, she doesn’t materialise her desire expressed in the front end of the book to have a life with impact (in a traditional sense), because at the end of the day her lasting legacy will be the price she paid for Henry’s freedom. Can I see the issues with this rhetoric? Yes. I’ll be the first to say that Schwab’s ending is questionable for its lack of alignment with women’s empowerment, and it’s frustrating to see that recent releases are still driving plots with women who must ultimately sacrifice themselves for men. So, there you go Erin, job done for you.
Erin: Yay! Job is done for me, thank you Liam. I am going to agree somewhat with Liam’s view that these relationships were needed to help add to the story and try to go into more depth with Addie. However, I am on team of both-of-these-guys-suck. I find that when trying to create an idea of independence and free will, generally you do not want to then have your character succumb to the control of men, both physically and emotionally. In the case of Luc, he is manipulative, somewhat abusive and constantly interferes with Addie’s life. The romantic subplot that was unearthed felt unnecessary. It felt as if Schwab got towards the end of her book and wanted to add a surprise. The issue with romanticising the very twisted and toxic relationship between the pair is that it adds to the growing rhetoric that people should aspire to be with, or should tolerate, people who mistreat them or emotionally abuse them. I think if Schwab wanted to keep Luc in she should have done so in a way where he stayed the antagonist. We should have been able to see more of Addie as independent and living her life without the presence of Luc controlling her.
Regarding Henry, I do admit that at first I was excited by his presence. It signalled a new relationship for Addie and I was excited that Addie could finally be remembered. But then I look at the burden he has given Addie through his mistake of making a deal with the devil (which I find super problematic, he should have sought psychological help or something of the sort), so that Addie then feels obligated to sacrifice her life to give him his. People say that it seems so romantic or that she is a good person. But to me, it is another classic example of an author feeding into this idea that the only way a cisgender woman can come across as heroic or nice is when she is nice to cisgender men, when she sacrifices herself for their wellbeing.
So, unfortunately for Zara, I will not be on the Luc train.
Erin: This is one of the things that irks me about this book. Addie has the whole world at her fingertips, she can go anywhere and meet new people. Yet Schwab contains the story to European places and White voices – a White-wash on the world. What about Asian countries? African countries? What about the stories of Black people, of Indigenous people, of Asian people? Where are they? Lauren of Gossamer Pages talks about these issues and expresses that while we should be supporting the own voices of people of colour or other marginalised groups, at the moment the publication industry is heavily controlled by White people. And so it is necessary that white authors do not confine their writing to purely be about the story of one white woman.
There was the inclusion of one Black woman, Beatrice, in the present time. However, her characterisation is shallow and Addie’s view of her is reduced to how pretty she is. This is tokenistic and feels out of place. Where is the meaningful commentary? Where is the human view of Beatrice? Is she just some object for readers to imagine and think is only worthy of our attention because she is beautiful?
I also found that when you consider that Addie has been alive for almost 300 years and has been through countless historical periods and meets so many historical figures, it is amazing that she only meets men. Leaving out female figures and non-White figures whitewashes the story, and instead of it being Addie as the invisible character, they are the invisible characters. Chantelle, one of our Marketing Subcom members, voiced this really profound idea that the book does not go into the people who are made invisible by history. The choice Schwab makes to have Addie be invisible, and to make it seem that she is the only one who struggles, as we do not see any other hardship, excludes any understanding of the reality of the times.
Furthermore, Addie only travels to European and Western countries. You would think, for a woman who is meant to be so free and full of independence, that she would go to more than just White places. If Schwab wants to make out she is worldly, then take her to China, take her to Botswana, take her anywhere that is non-White.
While I do think that cisgender women’s stories should be heard, stories should become more intersectional. We should not be seeing the White point of view as the pinnacle of all stories, the gatekeeper that excludes others. However, I think, unfortunately, following on from what Lauren talks about, literary society is imbued with a systemic process of upholding the White voice.
Liam: Erin is absolutely spot on. Schwab has attempted to create this idea that Addie has managed to travel the world during her years of isolation, learning and embracing new cultures and people; however, in reality we see her travel through Europe (and not even the totality of that, just France, England and Ireland) and then move to the United States. It’s very White. However, I also don’t think that just because she only travelled to predominantly White societies that we should be pulling Schwab up (although it’s questionable) because POC do exist in the countries I mentioned before, so there was still a grand opportunity for Addie to be exposed to those relationships and develop some kind of understanding of related societal issues. Alas, somehow Addie meets the literal devil before her first POC – shocking.
This is a woman (girl) who managed to live through a revolutionary time for women and POC and yet this has no real impact on her life. I understand that she can make no impact on the world, but is she not impacted by the events she is witnessing?
There is an interesting discussion by Cindy Pham (@withcindy on youtube) about whether Schwab did this intentionally, and if so, what are the dynamics of the conversation around whether White authors can portray and develop non-White characters? It is a really interesting conversation that Cindy brings up, and it is laced with complexity. Ultimately, it can be seen as a 'damned if you do, damned if you don’t' binary wherein there is valid criticism for when authors don’t include POC; however, when they do, they are often criticised for not exploring the depth of the characters, using common tropes or only mentioning the characters in passing and not exploring the issues that such characters might face. In this way, Cindy also highlights that, when authors do try to include diversity in their storylines, they may be called out for being disingenuous and writing about issues that they haven’t experienced themselves. She talks about this further in her video, 'What happens when you try to be inclusive but mess up anyway?', which references A Deadly Education by Noami Novik. So it’s a very complex field to navigate, and although in this circumstance it is very clear that Schwab did get it wrong, it provides an interesting conversation that we need to have around how we ensure diversity does exist in the literature we create.