The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
At the heart of this book is an existential concern for what is a very human question, at least one that I have long asked and wrestled with in my own life. It’s a question that I think anyone who has faced feelings of lonliness and despair, the burden the characters in this story carry with them through their journey in this world, can understand. And that is the question of whether a life has meaning if someone is forgotten. Or whether life in general is meaningful in light of the idea that we live, if we are lucky, we die, and we are in fact forgotten and erased from history. This is the truth of the kind of nihilist perspective that struggle and suffering seems to point us towards. And it is a question this book explores through some memorable characters, a well crafted and well structured story, and some really excellent prose.
Why would anyone trade a lifetime of talent for a few years of glory?” Luc’s smile darkens. “Because time is cruel to all, and crueler still to artists. Because vision weakens, and voices wither, and talent fades.” He leans close, twists a lock of her hair around one finger. “Because happiness is brief, and history is lasting, and in the end,” he says, “everyone wants to be remembered.”
What is a person, if not the marks they leave behind?
This question is folded first into the story of Addie LaRue, a woman we meet in the 1700’s on the brink of a traditional engagement and yet, as we come to know, feeling very much alone and in despair. She feels her life fleeting away, and in desperation says a prayer to that uncertain, invisible space that lies above and beyond her.
Freedom is a pair of trousers and a buttoned coat. A man’s tunic and a tricorne hat. If only she had known. The darkness claimed he’d given her freedom, but really, there is no such thing for a woman, not in a world where they are bound up inside their clothes, and sealed inside their homes, a world where only men are given leave to roam.
It is uncertain where this prayer is targeted to, and this uncertainty now folds this question into the character of Luc, someone who might be a god or might be something other. Luc is revealed to be the devil, having taken the form of someone from Addie’s past. Addie’s prayer for freedom and life, the things she feels she does not have in this lonely life we find her living in the 1700’s, and this prayer is answered in the form of a pact with Devil, a deal that demands her soul. The deal is that she is now both free and immortal, but the price is that she will never be remembered.
It is here that the book now shifts back and forth from the present (300 years later) and the past, with the present telling the story of Addie’s relationship to a third central character (Henry), and the past moving through her ongoing relationship with Luc, someone who returns to visit her once every year and in times of urgency. As we gain a fuller scope of how it is that this new found freedom has impacted her now immortal life over these 300 years, we begin to understand the dual nature of this pact. Her lonlieness and despair led her to ask for freedom and a long life. This is the price of not being able to invest in relationships. This becomes an image of individual immortality being played out without much of a context. As it turns out, relationships are what give life its context, but relationships are a risky endeavor. As Addie lives through these 300 years, we see her adapting in ways that feel counterintuitive to what she truly desires- to be known by another. To be remembered by another. We see this in the superficial ways she deals with sex, in the ways she is forced to live without an identity, resorting to stealing and living in transient ways without a place to truly call home. Since people immediately forget her after she leaves, and since she is unable to say her real, true name, time simply moves forward for her in a kind of aimless fashion. She sees progress, and progresses herself with time, learning all kinds of things that time has afforded her. And yet she does this alone.
Until Henry shows up and remembers her name. Here the book folds this central question about life and being remembered into his story, as it emerges that there is obviously something different about him. He remembers her and with him she is able to say her name. And as they begin to form this connection, seemingly unbound by the contraints of time immortal or limited time, what emerges is that Henry and Addie share two things in common- feelings of lonlieness and despair, and a pact. Only for him, his pact moves in the opposing direction from Addie’s. His prayer is for love. For connection. In trade for his soul he gains a short life but also love, a love that contrasts with the rejection that left him alone and which led him to say the prayer. That this would lead him to love and be loved by Addie is where these two prayers find themselves ultimately coinciding. His prayer becomes the true answer to Addie’s prayer.
Which brings us back to the central quesiton of the book. Being remembered leads Addie to not want to let go of Henry. For Henry to live, it would require him to have never loved Addie. In both cases this causes an unanswerable conflict between this love and this loss, this lonliness and this togetherness. The question that comes to Addie is, is the suffering that strains to steal away life worth the intermittant joys that emerge along the way? Or from the angle of their relationship, is the pain of the loss worth the love? Is the loss of her immortality worth the suffering that love would require? This is where I expected the book to dig into some familiar lines of reasoning and philsophical surmising. The answer of course would be yes, the joy is worth it, the love is worth it. That’s the kind of answer one would expect from a story like this. In many ways that is the easy answer, a way of reasoning worth and meaning into this life where we don’t make pacts with the olds gods or the devil. Where we create meaning out of our brief and limited time on this earth. For someone who is actually lonely though, and for someone facing despair and suffering, this is a pat answer. A false promise. A romanticized vision of a world that simply is not true. Ask Addie or Henry this same question in the midst of suffering and it inevitably would come back in the form of this prayer, this longing for something more. Ask them in the moment of love and togetherness and it would come in the form of knowing that what they are together means something because now they are remembered by someone and their lonliness is forgotten, if for the moment. This is revelatory to their experience, to this interconnecting of their shared experience of struggle, but what this doesn’t do is offer a way of making sense of the bigger picture, one that looks back on it from that eternal perspective. This doesn’t make sense of the question in the grander picture of life as a whole. From that vantage point, the 300 years vantage point, these two things, if we are being honest, are simply an irreconcilable tension. There is no true way to answer it when the tension of these two things are taken together, when removed from the moment and the context of either happiness or sorrow momentarily, we can take stock of what one has to say about the other. To this book’s credit, it tries to circumvent pat answers by writing the story into a more complex and compelling ending, one that can offer us that larger perspective and perhaps the chance to think about what this tension of the immortal and eternal truths and the nihilist and temporary nature of earthly existence holds in its grip.
This exploration comes in the form of the ending of the book that Henry is writing, a book that intends to tell Addie’s full story. This book reveals how these two pieces fit together in perspective of her struggle and her joy. The ending is the part she hasn’t shared with Henry as she laments the tragedy of their fleeting love. The ending brings us back to her relationship with Luc, one that has been revealed as a complex entity in its own right. Here I think we gain a sense of that difficult notion of faith, a relationship with god that can be difficult and allusive in the face of lonliness and despair and struggle, that common human experience. As the form of a god, the devil takes on an ironic “human” form. Luc is someone who is upfront by his desire to “break” Addie through her lonliness, her own humanity, to own her and make her fully dependent on him through the lies he posits in the shape of her true desire, her true longing. In this pact the devil becomes her true affair through the years, the desire of her heart, the only one who can truly know her and the only one she can truly know. Through this relationship though, what becomes clear is that the devil is made vulnerable by the same thing he preys upon in humanity- lonliness. His motivation to break humans, or Addie, is driven by the same rooted tension that he carries in his own life, something he desires to conquer through power and control. Find people in their lonliness and make them his own.
What emerges though is that love, in its truest form, has the power to break these chains the devil has over Addie. Love in its truest form emerges as sacrifice, a giving of onesself for the sake of another. This becomes the ending of Addie’s story, which is reflected as a new beginning for Henry as she trades her soul for his freedom. This is where the devil’s seeming victory becomes foiled, as it is this very form of love that forms the small print of this new pact she makes in exchange for Henry’s life. The small print qualifies her giving herself to the devil “for as long” as the devil wants her, or for as long the devil truly loves her. She knows that this pact will break because the devil’s form of love, based on power and control, cannot sacrifice his own life for her. And thus eventually she will be freed.
Books, she has found, are a way to live a thousand lives—or to find strength in a very long one.”
There is a sense in which the book that is written and published by Henry, this fictional book about Addie LaRue, is what immortalizes Addie and gives her life meaning. This is the very thing that says to her, I remember. I remember your name. Thos speaks to the books concern for the power of the artist, the creative, and the ability for art to capture our struggles and a person’s story in an immortalized form.
This becomes the measure by which Henry learns to now live his life with greater purpose and greater reward, this new found love afforded him by her love for him. Her sacrifice. What’s interesting about the way the author writes this is that she doesn’t exchange life for death. Her new pact doesn’t fully answer the tension of that life-death equation, that eternal perspective being shaped by the briefness of time. The author holds this in play, not simply looking to slot it back in through personified and phillosiphied forms of natural philosophy, but as a larger truth worth wrestling with. Relationship within time is what gives life meaning on one hand, but as that life breathes out into the broader scope of the relationship between humanity and the gods, humanity and the further expanse of time eternal, that question of meaning begins to form into something altogether different. We need both perspectives to make sense of the tension that exists here between being forgotten and being remembered. It is not enough to simpy say, the moments matter because they matter. This is not enough not only because it is not a universal truth- some lives do not get these moments and do not have the luxury of creating these moments, it is also not enough because it has no way of making sense of the larger “human” story. What we gain from 300 years is that question, why are we here and where is it going. Because the flipside of Addie being forgotten is that she watches everyone else get forgotten in time and progress as well.
I really appreciated that the book didn’t devolve into a typical humanist doctrine when it so easily could have gone there. It doesn’t simply demythologize the old gods and the promise of the eternal perspective by establishing this as a grand modern metaphor for living life in the moment, the gift of the temporary, the finite, the dying. So often those stories exist to demythologize, but then they write their own mythology of human existence in its place, a romanticized and idealized form that has no way of dealing with actual suffering, actual lonliness and despair. These are questions that actually emerge from awareness of the broader picture, not the finite form. It is in some ways easier to accept the finite if we blind ourselves to the larger reality. Much more diffiuclt to face the larger reality- we will all be forgotten, our lives are but an aimless and temporary ficture in a largely meaningless trajectory, when life itself is caught up in the suffering of the moment. There is a reason why this pushes Addie and Henry to prayer. In the context of their relationship, it is the intimate and personalized picture of this love between them that then opens up the larger picture of life and humanity from a fresh perspective. One that uncovers in the fleeting moment an eternal truth.
The old gods may be great, but they are neither kind nor merciful. They are fickle, unsteady as moonlight on water, or shadows in a storm. If you insist on calling them, take heed: be careful what you ask for, be willing to pay the price…And no matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark.”
And what I find super interesting is that in Addie’s assumption of the old gods, gods whom she describes in complicated and at times hostile ways, she is projecting the reality of her struggling experience onto the gods as a way of saying, if you are god why am I here suffering. Why am I lonely. Why am I dealing with this depression. The god she finds is in fact the devil. In reality, the love that she finds through the power of this self giving relationship is a reflection of the true god. The book doesn’t go so far as submit this in the form of a concrete answer, but it leaves the door open to consider this. To ponder this. To perhaps wrestle with this as a given, universal and eternal perspective. Which is precisely what allows Addie’s story to hold power. It points us to something greater than her life, greaterthan our life, which is the direction that her struggles and suffering was trying to point her towards all along.
“Being forgotten … is a bit like going mad. You begin to wonder what is real, if you are real. After all, how can a thing be real if it cannot be remembered