Books

In The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, Isolation Is a Curse. Literally.

The hero of V.E. Schwab’s new book struggles to make connections after a deal with the devil leaves her eternally anonymous.

Repeating pattern of the cover of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Tor Books.

I have never met anyone like Addie LaRue. Actually, no one has. The main character of V.E. Schwab’s new book, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, makes a deal with the devil for immortality, but it comes with a curse: No one will ever remember her, so she can never “meet” anyone. Still, it’s rare to encounter a character as stunningly, fiercely written as Addie, as she grows and changes over a span of 300 years. She is a high-wire act of a character in a high-wire act of a story, neither of which—despite the devil’s best efforts—I am likely to forget.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue marks the sixth adult novel for New York Times–bestselling author Schwab, who has also written nearly a dozen YA and middle-grade books, on top of some comics and short stories. I’ve loved Schwab’s work ever since I devoured her Shades of Magic series, a riveting fantasy about four magical, parallel Londons and the adventures of the rare race of magicians who can travel between them. Shades’ gorgeous writing, Schwab’s knack for world building, and her ability to balance action with deeply drawn characterization and relationships made the series resonate with me like no other books have.

I am pleased to say that much of what has made Schwab’s previous work so successful can also be found in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Addie’s story begins in 1714, when 23-year-old Adeline LaRue, a young woman whose dreams surpass the boundaries of her small French town, flees into the woods to escape an unwanted marriage. There, Adeline makes a deal with a dark god who promises a life with more time and freedom in exchange for Addie’s soul when she decides she is done living. The undisclosed catch, which Addie discovers too late, is that no one will ever remember her. She can leave no explicit trace, record, or product of herself behind: a life free of constraints, but also free of connection.

The book begins with Addie in New York City in the mid-2010s and cuts to flashbacks across three centuries’ worth of her exploits across continents. Along the way, an unlikely relationship unfolds between Addie and the devil (sometimes called “the darkness” or “Luc”) who cursed her, both her archenemy and her sole companion. But in New York, Addie’s life is forever altered yet again when she meets a mysterious young man named Henry Strauss who, somehow, remembers her.

Addie incorporates many of Schwab’s oft-explored themes, including the transformative effects of intense personal bonds and the relationship between life and death (and what exists somewhere in between them). As was particularly notable in Shades, her characters are “queer unless stated otherwise,” even more of a rarity in Addie given its historical elements. But the scope of Addie is unlike anything Schwab has written before—epic yet intimate, sweeping but not sprawling. I often found myself wondering how various aspects of the book might translate cinematically, like how exactly the shadowy Luc might look in his chosen human-imitative form of “less a man than a collection of features”—a query that will be answered thanks to an already-announced big-screen adaptation.

Because Addie covers so much ground, it can be disappointing when stories are hinted at but never manifest (do I need to keep an eye out for her quickly mentioned time in Prague?), and one wonders why we hear so little about any travels the insatiably curious Addie makes beyond Europe and North America. But though Addie’s world may be vast, it is depicted with careful attention to detail, like the changes in her vocabulary that subtly signal time’s passage. (She describes a “head full of muslin” on a sleepy morning in 1806, but by 1899, Addie and other characters use the more popularized cotton when describing similar sensations.) Schwab uses Addie’s broad setting less as a destination in and of itself and more as a means to explore the ramifications of Addie’s deal, as she engineers a life within its confines and ekes out semblances of belonging, no matter how transient. Addie manipulates her curse to help her steal and spy, and learns to leave traces of herself behind in art and ideas throughout history, her contributions anonymous but visible nonetheless.

It’s that particular aspect of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue that keeps looping through my head in these days of the pandemic. Addie does not say much about physical illness, but it has a lot to say about how connection and love are always possible even in the face of isolation, how we inevitably leave our mark in the world and on the people who cross our paths even in the unlikeliest or most fleeting of circumstances. It is easy to feel that, in the absence of traditional, tangible moments of connection, no such connection could exist, no mark can be made. And yet, as an acquaintance advises Addie, “there are many ways to matter.” If Addie shows anything, it’s that the impact of our actions and interactions can be vaster and longer-lasting than we can predict. Much like the seven freckles that sprinkle Addie’s face, we create our own constellations, and as we live through these darkened days, I feel brighter for having added Addie to mine.