Be careful what you wish for: ‘The Invisible Life of Addie Larue’
posted June 05, 2021 at 09:50 pm
By Robespierre L. Bolivar and Rory J. Bolivar
Humankind has always been obsessed with immortality. The concept of an afterlife—in whatever form that may take—is prevalent in many societies and provides us a consoling means of coming to terms with our finite existence.
Even modern science is not immune to the allure of death conquered. Medicine has long pursued the prolongation of the human lifespan. The concept of a technological singularity, when artificial intelligence evolves to the point where “digital ascension” (the ability to download human consciousness onto a computer) is possible, is another stab at living forever.
Ask yourself, though: If you were given the chance, would you really want to live forever? If you do, then ask yourself this: What would you be willing to give in exchange for immortality?
These are the foundations on which Victoria E. Schwab’s exquisite novel The Invisible Life of Addie Larue (Tor Books, October 2020) was built.
Born to a poor family in rural 18th-century France, Adeline “Addie” Larue dreamed of seeing the world. While her sister Isabelle followed in their conservative mother’s footsteps, Addie wanted the freedom to build a life of her own choosing.
Her fate seemed sealed when her parents arranged her marriage to a local widower. Suffocated by the prospect of ending up like Isabelle – married to a man she did not love and saddled with children – she escaped her parents’ house on her wedding day. She found herself deep in the woods, pleading with any deity who would listen to free her from the burden of a life in which she will belong to someone else.
When the darkness answered, he offered her a Faustian bargain: a life untethered, time without limit, in exchange for a pledge that Addie’s life and soul would be his when she is done with them.
Out of desperation, Addie consented, not knowing that what she will eventually receive was a perversion of what she desired. Yes, her life was unencumbered; she was free to do as she pleased. Addie could live as long as she wanted and could dictate when she would welcome her own death.
But her life would not leave any mark. No one would remember her. Any trace of her would vanish as quickly as the blink of an eye.
Addie Larue became the embodiment of the age-old adage “out of sight, out of mind”. Erased from anyone’s memory by the briefest moment apart.
She was, for all intents and purposes, a ghost.
She would have to steal food and clothing to survive. She would need to charm or trick her way into strangers’ homes so she would have a place to lay her head for the night, knowing that as the morrow breaks she will have to begin again.
Even to people with whom she had intimate relations, Addie would be a fleeting glance at a faded photograph, familiar but maddeningly faint strains of music, or a dull ache from a time long forgotten.
Traces of her presence would appear in art through the centuries: the freckles on her cheeks make a constellation of stars in a post-modernist painting; random notes she played on a piano form a bittersweet cadenza in a popular ballad; an idea she sowed takes shape as the premise of a bestselling novel.
Addie Larue lived through three centuries as a phantom: unable to age or die, unable to build a life beyond a meager existence, unable to form any meaningful attachments. Her only constant companion is Luc, the Mephistopheles to her Faust, who taunts her every year on the anniversary of their dark bargain. He mocks her to take what is seemingly the only way out of her cursed life: surrender her soul to him, complete the deal, and end her suffering.
Until one day, in present-day New York, she meets Henry Strauss, the boyish manager at a used bookstore. Their chance encounter leads to a memorable evening, and just at the point when Addie would usually resign herself to becoming a faded memory, Henry remembers her. And for the first time in three centuries, Addie leaves an indelible mark.
Is this a cruel joke, a long con that Luc is playing on her to force her surrender? Is this a fortuitous tear in the otherwise seamless fabric of the curse? Or is this hope, the tantalizing prospect that, after all these years, she is able to outlast her tormentor?
The Invisible Life of Addie Larue is a bittersweet but hopeful look at the power of the human spirit. Schwab’s prose is assured, lyrical, and beautiful. The premise around which she built this narrative is intriguing; the story itself a satisfying blend of literary fiction, magical realism, and love story, wrapped in what is at times a Lonely Planet-esque guide to the five boroughs of New York City.
Schwab’s frequent transitions from 18th century France to 21st century New York (and other significant eras Addie lived through) could initially be jarring, but as the story progresses, we begin to appreciate the way she structures the novel. Masterfully dabbing crucial plot points and planting ingenious twists and turns, she builds Addie’s narrative layer by careful layer, the way a painter adds color, texture, and perspective. Pay close attention to the dates in each chapter as these are crucial to fully appreciating the importance of the alternating time jumps.
In Addie Larue, Ms. Schwab has created a sympathetic, likable, and relatable heroine. Sure, none of us will ever get the chance to live for 300 years. And yet we feel Addie’s existential exhaustion, we suffer the pangs of heartbreaking loss every time she is erased from people’s minds, and we celebrate her victories, especially in those moments when she finds her footing and, through brazen acts of defiance, gives the darkness the proverbial middle finger.
We connect with Addie in a visceral way. Perhaps we share with her that deep-seated desire to live beyond mere existence. Maybe she speaks to that part of the human experience that dares surmount seemingly unconquerable odds. Her spunk fortifies us, and her childlike enthusiasm and wonder wins us over (perhaps some would call it naïveté, but try to imagine yourself being 300 years old and still finding things that amaze you).
Walt Whitman once confronted us with that difficult question: What good is life when we face struggles daily and when, at times, our hopes are unrequited? He answered by challenging us: “That you are here – that life exists and identity / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
More than a century and a half later, The Invisible Life of Addie Larue drives home the same point. It reminds us that life is worth living, that we must not waste any moment, and that each day can be an opportunity to matter and to add a meaningful and life-affirming verse to humanity’s narrative. About the authors: Rory J. Bolivar is a registered microbiologist. Robespierre L. Bolivar is a career diplomat and former spokesperson of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. Email them at [email protected]
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