Analysis: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
October 28th, 2021 6:02 PM
Book: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab
Medium: Audiobook (read by Julia Whelan)
Recommendation: Read this if you’re ready to absorb a pensive, intellectual, nearly literary piece of historical fiction with dazzling prose and a fascinating premise. This is like if one of Chuck Palahniuk’s books became 90% less sexual and then, still full of bitter—yet interesting—musings about life and societal expectations, fused with one of the Grimm brother’s fairy tales and perhaps something like Outlander (though set much less in the past than in the present).
When I was in college, I wrote a novel called The Lovely and Lonely Blue (hereafter, TLALB). Just listen to that title! I’ve talked about it in recent blog posts, but I’ll say it here again: that story suffered from a bad case of I-am-an-intellectual-author-with-a-message-and-no-real-story-a-tosis. There was a story there, but I didn’t write TLALB to explore the characters or to explore the plot; I wrote it to explore a notion. Is that a bad thing, necessarily? No. But I think it resulted in a story that was pretty boring, onerous, ponderous, and decidedly depressing.
Now, I’ve long mused about the dichotomy between storytelling fit for entertainment (think of authors like Stephen King, or movies like, say, Die Hard) and storytelling fit for stimulating thought (think of authors like Chuck Palahniuk, or movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). That’s not to say that all of King’s work—or every action film, for that matter—is void of any themes or motifs that might stir up intellectual thought, but I think the core of those stories is plot, character, excitement, and enticing the audience. With other works, there is a thread at the center of them, and you can tell these works were crafted with an idea in mind—not an audience. After musing about it just a bit more, perhaps dichotomy isn’t the right word, because it’s more of a spectrum, right? And even that word implies that stories might fall somewhere along that spectrum. Really, the best stories split themselves into pieces and make marks all along that spectrum, imparting wisdom while simultaneously enticing the audience onward.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (hereafter, TILOAL) suffers from that same disease as my first novel, though it is in much better shape. In terms of prose, author experience, characters, setting, research, and intrigue, Schwab’s novel obviously sends mine limping away in shame. Oh, and, also, Schwab’s novel has been published and read by many, many people. But I only bring up this comparison because TILOAL, at its core, is a story built around notions and ideas and messages; it is art sculpted from words. And art, sometimes, is just as boring as it is fascinating, for just as you could theoretically stare for hours at a piece of abstract art while contemplating its myriad meanings, you might also be bored by the same type of art. Further, you could also spend the same amount of time absorbing the much shallower images of a graphic novel. With a graphic novel, it’s face value, and it’s more fun. You might not be getting too much of a workout for your brain, but at least you’re enjoying the ride.
As a reader, TILOAL impressed me in a lot of ways. The prose was stellar (though I have a caveat about it), the premise was solid and original (though I have a caveat about that), and the plot and characters were rounded and kept my interest.
The prose is sweet, indulgent—almost saccharine—and it leaves you feeling much the same way you might feel after eating a bag of candy ten servings too large. When you read or listen to an author whose command of the English language is so strong that she can effortlessly string together clause after clause after participable phrase, sprinkling in adjectival phrase after adverbial phrase, you start to yearn for the taste of the simple sentence structure. When that author plays with language and tense—jumping between the already-less-conventional present tense and a nauseatingly-frequent indulgence in future tense—and she muses about semantics and focuses her character’s thoughts and senses on every coy smile and every flash of the teeth and every turn of the eye, you notice similarities in the grandiosity.
In some ways, it’s like staring into the enormity of the Grand Canyon. The rock walls, taken apart, look rather like one another, and they shine—for a while—when you regard them as a sum of parts. Stare too long, however, and those parts that make up the briefly dazzling whole begin to stick out, and you realize how similar every wall is. Each monolithic face has its own eccentricities, yes—just as each of Schwab’s sentences has its own set of strong verbs and clarifying adjectives and precise nouns and the occasional adverb—but, from afar, you know you’re staring each time at a rock. And as beautiful as each is, you begin to tire of looking at rocky walls and instead wish to feast upon the sights of the sky or the ocean or the simple, crackling whimsicality of a fire.
In the simplest terms, I think that Schwab overwrites. Obviously, she’s amassed a major swath of fans, and they’re hard earned. So, so much of her prose is breath-taking (and the crux of my whole argument here is really that I wish she’d tone it down just a little bit so that her readers can take a breath back), and most of her weighty musings about life and time and memories and identity are poignant enough to make an impression on her readers, but I found myself reaching again and again for the literary equivalent of a glass of water to stave off the rush of sweetness that I got from reading her stretching sentences and watching her play so freely with the language.
This choice to indulge in so much internal monologue brought this story from a general fantasy story into the realm of literary fiction. That’s probably what Schwab was aiming for. I’ve never read her other work, so perhaps she took less risk in her earlier works and reined in her prose somewhat, but I clearly see that, here, in this novel, she sought to lean in hard to most of the advanced tools in every writer’s toolkit. I mean, after every line of dialogue, I braced myself for a few sentences dissecting either the meaning of the words spoken or the pointless, throwaway gesture the character might have performed alongside the dialogue.
There was no escape—for any character—from Schwab’s relentlessness in this endeavor. Every turn of the lips and hand gesture meant something. If a gesture didn’t mean something, it was paired with some splendid metaphor, and so every expression reminded Addie of a purple sea of stars or a piece of smoky charcoal (and the word “woodsmoke” comes to mind now because it showed up frequently) and every time she saw the antagonist’s teeth, she conjured up images of rotting wood and dead earth and wolves with bloody jaws that hungered for yet more prey.
Metaphor is great—don’t get me wrong. So is strong imagery. And I loved a lot of what Schwab did, but, as I said, I also found myself yearning to read a simple sentence here and there. Addie laughed—and that’s it! But that was too great an ask, because every time Addie LaRae laughed, it was a sound that was full and joyous and benevolent. Every silence had a face.
Before I get into any kind of analysis about what I think this book taught me about writing, I’d like to note a few things:
The most chilling and badass line in the whole book was when a certain character said, “I am the one who sees kindling and coaxes it to flame.” I won’t say who said this, but it was a pretty cool moment.
The phrase “For a second—and only a second—” was a bit overused.
“’Dialogue,’ says Addie, and the word swells in her chest.” This setup was very overused, too. After nearly every instance of the word “tomorrow” or “before” or any kind of other spatial/temporal word, we’re treated to a discourse about how much it means or hurts Addie based on whom she is talking to. I think the author leans into this a little too much.
“’Dialogue,’ and it isn’t a lie.” Significantly overused. I get that Addie’s life was… in a sense, a lie. And I get that she essentially had no way of telling the truth—her only means of communication, often, was in telling half-truths. Thus, I understand that the author leaned in a bit to this notion of Addie saying things that… aren’t lies, but I didn’t feel I needed to be repeatedly told that Addie wasn’t lying outright. I knew that.
And finally: Palimpsest. Palimpsest! Palimpsest! Don’t know what a palimpsest is? I don’t blame you. I looked this word up, and I found that it was a word that is almost uniquely suited to this particular novel. In a way, I understand why Schwab used this word so frequently, and I also sympathize with her, as I had the same propensity to use a cool, big word quite frequently in my own novel (mine was “infinitesimal”). I would have swooned if she’d introduced me to the word once or twice and left it at that, but after I’d heard the word eight times, I realized that Schwab was probably just enamored with the word and didn’t realize how much she indulged in it. Obviously, certain words will show up countless times in a novel, but seriously outlandish words—like “palimpsest”—should probably be used pretty sparingly.
Here's what this novel taught me about writing. The occasional burst of fanciful writing is okay. It’s alright to indulge in some whimsical, flighty, volatile sentences. Indulging in sentences that contain a multitude of additional clauses strung together with conjunctions can be freeing, and when an author frees herself to embellish her prose with dazzling adverbial phrases and biting adjectival phrases, that author is apt to happen upon some true beauty. I also saw the danger of indulging too much. Yes, with writing, I believe there really can be too much of a good thing. I think that, in Schwab’s quest for those brief glints of majesty, I think she dragged her readers through a lot of gold-plated replicas.
I wouldn’t dare to call her prose purple, because I do think that, while it was at times overly ornate to the point of distracting from the story, the prose still drove some function of the story forward. Whether an analysis of semantics or gestures or a deep dive into a list of metaphors is necessarily fun or engaging might be a bit irrelevant here; I never really felt that there wasn’t good reason for Addie—or, in some cases, Henry—to be so focused on these things. Indeed, Addie’s fascination with semantics—her discourses about words like “tomorrow” or “date” or other temporal words—was warranted, given her unique situation. So, again, I don’t think the prose was quite purple, because none of it really existed just for the sake of showcasing Schwab’s absolute mastery of the language; all of the prose serviced the story, but sometimes it serviced the story in such an auxiliary way that I found myself experiencing ennui. While I wouldn’t call it purple prose, I would say the writing was a bit too decorative and a bit too overwritten, and obviously that’s a reader’s preference, as many of this novel’s positive reviews will tell you.
I enjoyed the characters and settings and plot on a surface level. I was drawn to Addie and Henry and even Luc, but I think that the plot and much of the author’s study of rhetorical concepts came into the focus a lot more. Overall, I enjoyed this novel well enough. If I were rating based on enjoyment alone, I might have given this novel two or three stars. Truthfully, sometimes I just felt bored. However, I’m also considering the beauty of this novel. It was, in many ways, a work of art. What I didn’t outright enjoy, I always, always appreciated from an artistic perspective.
In summation, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue fell a bit closer to the side of indulgent, intellectual navel gazing than I typically like, but my dislike of that place on the entertainment spectrum might be a reflection of who I am and what I am inclined to enjoy. To my shame, perhaps, I admit that I like things to be a bit more forthright—I like more practical prose in place of meticulously crafted prose. However, this novel did instill in me a taste of what kinds of magic are possible if an author indulges a bit. Perhaps I’ll give this a try, and my future novels will shine a bit more for containing less workmanlike prose. This novel is a great addition to the genre, and the audience it was made for will surely find plenty to love about it.
Through long bouts of internal monologue in which every other line is a metaphor or simile or baroque phrase drawing the reader further into the self-assured mind of Addie LaRue (or, as I mentioned, Henry Strauss) and further from the action of the story, the reader is eventually treated to some excellent observations about life, love, memory, loss, and humanity. The story often takes a backseat to the protagonist’s musings (and I know some will argue that the protagonist’s musings are the story, but I disagree in this instance as I’m referring strictly to the events of the story—the plot), but when sheer plot does come through, it is often engaging enough to encourage the reader onward. Overall, I think this one is worth the ride, and it has a few moments of real, honest beauty, a thing that is rarely captured well enough—except by truly talented authors—in the fantasy genre.