This book broke my heart. It also made me laugh aloud, made me stay up WAY too late to finish just a few more pages, and made me think. In fact, I’m still thinking about it now, instead of immediately engaging in my usual desperate rush to find my next read. Yes, it’s that good.
This is a book about life, about the intransigence of memory, about the difficulty women face in making a mark in a world that’s still far too male-centric. It’s a story about love, about art and its power to transcend the day-to-day, and about the grinding weight of history on all our bones and our souls. It’s a brilliant tour de force, and one of those books that sticks with you.
Adeline LaRue is a girl in 17th century rural France. What she wants is to live her life on her own terms. When she’s forced into an untenable situation, a marriage not of her choosing, she makes an unthinkable deal with a dark force. Thus begins her story. Addie will live forever, as long as she doesn’t give in. But she can never make a mark on the world, either literally or figuratively. Instead, she must live among the rest of us, forgotten, invisible, alone but for the taunting of the one who made the bargain. This defines Addie’s long, long life, swimming in the undercurrent of history, forever unnoticed. Until a man in a random bookstore in New York City remembers her, and her life changes once again.
Don’t think this is a story about a woman who pines away until her Prince Charming comes along to save her–it’s nothing like that. This is a book about a strong person who is enough for herself, who doesn’t need saving, who beats an implacable supernatural force time and again simply through the power of her own immutable will. She’s tortured for hundreds of years, both by the solitary life she must lead and by her inability to make a mark on the world around her (not to mention by the malevolent force that put her in this situation in the first place). But Addie continues, and keeps finding new reasons to carry on and new sources of joy and novelty, in spite of the never-ending life sentence she’s been gifted. In spite of it all, Addie perseveres.
There’s a lot of metaphor in that last paragraph, but then, there’s a lot of metaphor in this book. This has been a year for dwelling on our past, for seeking to survive the solitary day-to-day of our present, and for worrying about our future. Given that fact, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is the perfect novel for 2020. It is able to simultaneously showcase the grandeur and breadth of hundreds of years of human history, while also maintaining a laser focus on one person’s individual thread as it winds its way through all of those seconds and hours and minutes and days.
Life in quarantine has not been easy, and it can make one feel cut off and isolated from the rest of humanity. Even though millions of us are sharing this experience, all in our own homes, scattered around the world, finding and acknowledging that common thread doesn’t happen often enough. I’ve already read countless think pieces on how we’re “all in this together”, and yet we each feel as though we’re the only ones living this previously unthinkable existence. I’ll make it perfectly clear here that having the luxury to quarantine and work from home without worrying about financial ruin, and without needing to be forced to work in any number of professions outside of the home, is a massive level of privilege. I don’t have my blinders on about that, and I think it’s a mistake to bemoan our terrible lives when there will always be many more who have it worse than we do. That said, it’s hard to feel forgotten and set-apart from the rest of humanity. We all know people who are pretending COVID-19 doesn’t exist, desperately whistling past the graveyard as they go to crowded restaurants and birthday parties and whine about masks as an abridgement of their liberties. Even though they’re the ones in the minority, the very contrast of life before vs life as it is now makes those folks seem like the ones with the “normal” existence. So the rest of us do our best to fill our days and our nights, to connect in any way possible with our loved ones, and to stave off the depression and anxiety as the days at home stretch into an ever-increasing number of months. I think that consuming this gift of a novel, here, after more than seven months of a global pandemic, is the closest thing to perfect my heart has found.
This book is also a meditation on art, on genius, on the act of creating something that will outlive us, no matter how many years we have granted to us. I know I’m not alone in having spent big swathes of my life on creative pursuits, and I don’t regret any of it. Art for art’s sake matters, and the creation of something that might transcend our blink on this earth is also a worthwhile pursuit. Our view of the world is mirrored in the art we birth, whether in brief glimpses or our entire broad narrative. I want that for myself, and for everyone–to form a thing that is reflective of us and yet resonates with another is perhaps the closest thing to divine we’ve got available to us, as mere mortals without the chance at a Faustian bargain. Keep on writing, and taking pictures, and knitting, and drawing, and spinning that wheel. Keep thinking about the world and your place in it, whether anybody will see the piece you labor over so carefully. Art is art is art, and this book is art.
My reading tastes are eclectic–it’s easy enough to tell that by looking back on the things I’ve reviewed over these past few years. And yes, I know that it’s been nearly a year since I posted a review. But reading this book felt so right that I couldn’t help but resurrect the site just to say this: you need this story in your life. What genre does it fit into? That’s hard to say. It defies easy categorization, just as the world defies easy attempts to make our new normal as meaningful as the old once was. Schwab’s prose is lyrical, and moving, and her descriptions of her heroine’s travels are so, so well-written. This almost feels like an attempt at a new genre, to match our post-COVID world. Which would be just fine with me. It’s definitely literary fiction, it’s probably fantasy, it’s probably historical fiction, it’s probably romance, it’s probably noir, it’s probably supernatural fiction, and it’s absolutely women’s literature. It’s easier to say what it isn’t than what it is–it isn’t simple. The shades of gray and use of nuance, both in its use of language and narrative structure, both made it a joy to consume as quickly as I possibly could. Take this passage, for one:
“That time always ends a second before you’re ready. That life is the minutes you want minus one. And so they get dressed, and they go out, and walk, wearing circles into the block as the panic begins to win. It is a hand pressing against weakened glass, a steady pressure on spreading cracks, but Addie is there, her fingers laced through his.”
Reading that back makes me want to pick up the novel all over again and devour it from the beginning. We live in a hard world. Some of us are forgotten, and some of us just feel as though we’re forgotten. Ultimately, what’s the difference? We create, we live, and we love. We do our best to create lasting connections, even though we don’t know how long they’ll last. This book is about all of these things. Read it.