"Ideas are so much wilder than memories."
The Invisible Life of Addie Larue begins near the end of seventeenth-century in the small village of Villon, France, when young Adeline LaRue convinces her father to take her into the city with him, to sell his wooden carvings. In Le Mans, Adeline sees and experiences many new things, and as she travels there with her father she hears his stories, and she is forever changed by her travels. Even as young as she is, she knows she doesn’t want the small life Villon would give her. Her friendship with Estelle, an old woman who lives on the edges of the village and teaches her about the Old Gods, provides her with a sort of escape for her energy; as she learns about leaving offerings and praying to the Old Gods, she seemingly manages to avoid marriage. But on the day she cannot, she breaks the rule Estelle has taught her: never pray to the Gods who answer in the dark, and in doing so makes a sort of Faustian bargain: her freedom for her soul.
Of course, as with all such bargains, she doesn’t understand the transaction until it is too late: her freedom comes at the price of memory. She remembers everything, but people forget her as soon as they leave her presence. Thus, she begins a new life, where she must figure out how to live without being able to really exist for anyone else, for longer than a day at most. As she lives, we get to experience three hundred years of history, from Le Mans to Paris to America, with a few trips to Italy and Germany along the way. She becomes adept at thievery and at getting by on her own, and then one day in 21st century New York, she meets someone who remembers her.
I’ve been really excited to read this book, but have been saving it for this time after my surgery when I knew I would have a lot of reading time (I have). It’s the first book I’ve read in I don’t even know how long which I’ve finished in two days. And I think my anticipation was worth the wait: I thoroughly enjoyed the story. I loved seeing how Addie manipulates the world so that she can get along within the context of having to start every single day anew. (It also, though, I confess, reminded me of the feeling I deeply don’t enjoy when traveling, that time between getting off the airplane and actually being inside your hotel room, when you feel lost and unconnected with no familiar places around you.) I liked experiencing her experiencing the change in society as time passes. I adored the thread of art running through the story, what that little glint says about where creativity even comes from. The addition of the character Luc, who is the God she made her bargain with, made the book into something else…not just a wandering through history but an exploration of what it means to be human. And her relationship with Henry, the first person to remember her in 300 years, was the kind of romance I appreciate—intense and sharp, but not too perfect.
But I did wish some things were different. I actually wanted more of Addie’s story; I wanted to explore Florence with her, for example, rather than just being there for one night. See what her impressions of New York were as it changed during the twentieth century. Come to interact more deeply with the artists she influenced. I found it improbable that she could teach herself to read, because without context how can you even begin to know what sound each letter on a page makes?
What I didn’t like the most is the light that the book places on “everyday lives.” Especially women’s lives. Addie’s friend in Villon, Isabelle, who she grew up with, is a character I will remember, because her life is portrayed with such bleakness: early marriage, several babies close together, and then death before she reaches middle age, every moment of her life consumed by work instead of joy. This is what Addie makes her bargain to escape, a short life of drudgery and death, and then she goes out into the world to experience it as most women cannot. And while that character—the girl who doesn’t fit in because she’s too free-thinking, too forward thinking, too “not-normal-girl” enough—is a trope that’s inherent to feminist fiction and is, in fact, one of my preferred tropes…even while I enjoy the character, it still does a disservice to everyday lives like Isabelle’s. Yes…Addie gets to experience extraordinary things. Just like many people in the world, even without Faustian bargains, do. And yes, there is a part of me that is bitter about my life being small and average like Isabelle’s. But there is also beauty here, too, and by totally discrediting that, Addie loses some of her own humanity, somehow, for me. Later, she tells Luc that "nothing is all good or bad," that human lives are messier than that, and it is true of this circumstance, too...that just kind of bites at me some.
Still, though, this is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and would love to hear your thoughts on.
EDITED. I have received several comments and emails about what I wrote about "everyday lives," and I wanted to clarify. It's not that I think that marriage and motherhood are choices every woman should make. I don't. This is what feminism is, in fact: that you choose what fits well for you, rather than automatically doing what is prescribed based on the traditions of your gender. I'm not saying that Addie is less-than for not wanting any part of what Isabelle chose. Rather, it is the light Isabelle's choices are cast in. Women in most of the history of people have suffered and not been given the freedom to explore their identities outside of being wives and mothers. It must've been hard to be in Isabelle's shoes. But there is also goodness, light, and happiness there as well. The fact that Addie never thought about Isabelle's life with anything other than sadness or a touch of revulsion just...it grates at me a little bit. And maybe that is because of my own weaknesses and the fact that I sometimes feel a sort of...shame, almost, about the choices I have made, and then I'm projecting them onto a book.
One of the things that books like this—books that present an image of what it might be like to live more than one lifetime—do to me is create a sense of tension. How devastating it is that we only get one life, one experience, one group of people to know and love. But how devastating would it be to live and watch everyone you love grow old and die? (Eternal Life by Dara Horn also raised these feelings for me.) But here we are, in this reality. No one gets to do everything. And I guess I just wanted to give space for the Isabelles of the world and point out that while their lives are average, they aren't only darkness and drudgery and sorrow.