Gary K. Wolfe Reviews The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie Larue, V.E. Schwab (Tor 978-0-7653-8756-1, $26.99, 446pp, hc) November 2020.

There are so many classic themes woven together in V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie Larue that at times the novel feels like a gallery of old favorites curated by someone who clearly loves them all. The deal-with-the-devil tale, of course, is as old as the devil. The secret-immortal-living-among-us has been a genre staple for decades, oc­casionally given a more mainstream treatment, as in Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time. Even the notion of someone cursed with being instantly forgettable has shown up a fair amount recently, such as in Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope and even in the YA superhero series Zeroes from Scott Westerfeld, Deborah Biancotti & Margo Lanagan, where it served as the superpower of the character Anonymous. (I haven’t read Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Nobody, but apparently forgettability is a sort of secret weapon there as well.) There are elements of the sentimental timeslip romance, stretched out over decades (or even centuries) that vaguely echo novels from Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie to Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. There’s even a rom-com style meet-cute, when Addie, who has been getting away with thievery for 300 years, tries to return a book she stole a day earlier from the same bookshop, only to be recognized by Henry, the clerk she stole it from – and the first human to remember Addie in all those centuries. But before we get to that important detail, the main question about the novel isn’t its conceptual originality – it’s unabashedly a conglomerate – but how such a buffet of comfort foods can be as compelling as it is. I sus­pect there are two main answers: one is that Schwab focuses unrelentingly on the powerful passion of simply wanting to be seen, and the other is that her adoration for her main character, combined with her skill in pacing, is almost irresistibly contagious.

The novel follows two timelines: one in 2014 New York, and one tracing Addie’s long life. Born in the small French village of Villon in 1691, Addie is an irrepressible dreamer who befriends an old woman named Estelle, who still worships the “old gods,” but warns Addie about “the gods that answer after dark.” It’s no surprise then that Addie, in her 20s and facing a drab life of marriage, motherhood, and death, makes a deal with just such a god, Luc, who grants her indefinite life – until such time as she decides to surrender her soul to him. Normally, that would be a pretty dumb bargain for any respectable devil, but he has another trick up his sleeve: she will be forgotten instantly by everyone she meets, condemning her to wander alone through history. Schwab skillfully traces episodes from Addie’s life over the next three centuries, resisting the temptation to run her through a Bill and Ted greatest historical hits playlist (though she does glimpse Voltaire and Beethoven) and achieving an authentic and touching sense of loss whenever Addie returns to her home village, from which all traces of her childhood are gradually disappearing. Most of the historical epi­sodes involve Luc checking in with Addie every few decades. He’s clearly more fascinated with her than he wants to let on, but unfortunately Luc himself is annoyingly boring for a demon, given to mut­tering gloomy pronouncements like “I am a thing of darkness” and apparently taking his pop culture namesakes, and wardrobe, way too seriously.

The chapters set in 2014 New York find Addie settled into a rhythm of anonymous lovers, casual thefts, and apartment-squatting. Henry Strauss is a rather rootless failed academic working in a used bookstore who, despite a circle of likeable and witty friends (who sometimes talk like Noah Baumbach screenplays), feels chronically unloved. With the same characters showing up from chapter to chapter, this plotline gains a continuity largely missing from the historical chronicle of Addie’s life. Henry him­self is appealing in a nebbishy sort of way, and the reason he alone can remember Addie has to do with a secret of his own, which had best remain unstated here (although it’s pretty clear Henry never read John Collier’s “The Chaser”). Once the tense dynamic is established among Addie, Henry, and Luc, Schwab’s major source of suspense is the question of how to resolve all this while violating neither the terms of the bargain nor the breathless romance of the tone, with its dramatic one-line paragraphs and portentous repeated phrases (“Déjà vu. Déjà vu. Déjà vu”). Fortunately, Schwab thoroughly nails her ending, salvaging our faith in Addie while ingeniously un­derlining the bookstore theme which has insinuated itself throughout the narrative. While The Invisible Life of Addie Larue offers much that is familiar and moments of coloratura overdrive, my guess is that most readers will fall in love with Addie as fully as Schwab herself has. And, well, she is pretty cool.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the November 2020 issue of Locus.

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