an ethical critique of addie larue

A quick introduction

From the publisher. Distinctions include NYPL Best Books of the Year, Best Books of the Year, Best Books of the Year, NPR Best Book of the Year, Kirkus Reviews Best Books of the Year, Barnes and Noble Best New Books of the Year

V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was an undeniable success among critics, receiving glowing praise and starred reviews from The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and dozens of others. Neil Gaiman and Jodi Picoult were just a few of the big names to endorse the book as it skyrocketed to the top of just about every bestseller list back in October 2020.

Touted as a genre-defying tour de force, The Invisible Life features heroine Addie LaRue, a girl born in a small French town in the early 18th century. In a moment of desperation, she makes a deal with the devil to live an extraordinary life, and she’s granted the gift of immortality.

The catch?
No one will remember her.

The book follows Addie as she learns to navigate her curse, the narrative flipping back and forth from past to present. Over three centuries, she has run-ins with historical figures, falls in love, and inspires some of the greatest works of art the world has seen. She travels between New York and London, Paris and Amsterdam.

So what’s the issue?

Over the course of three hundred years, the “world traveler” that she is, Addie does not ever step foot outside of Western Europe or America. She has a described interaction with exactly one (1) Black person in 2020 New York (and I will discuss the weirdness of this interaction later). Despite living through horrific and bloody wars, revolutions, and historical events, Addie is so consumed by her own desire to be seen that she does not see any of the other suffering happening around her. In fact, she never even acknowledges the existence of groups that may be suffering. There is no interest in non-western culture, nor the drive to help others who are just as “unseen” as she is.

So why did Schwab decide to exclude an entire swath of global history and identity? Was it just an accident? Was she just too focused on telling Addie’s story?

What is #ownvoices and how does it apply to The Invisible Life?

#ownvoices is a movement to promote books whose authors are writing about their own experience, with emphasis on reading books from authors of color or other marginalized groups. For example, an #ownvoices book could be a story about a gay Asian character written by a gay Asian author.

Despite best intentions, there have been issues with #ownvoices actually working against the groups it was supposed to help. White publishers are gatekeeping what sort of #ownvoices stories are being published, asking authors to reveal personal information about their experiences. There have been issues with agents asking authors about mental health, gender identity, or sexual orientation in order to confirm that a book is truly #ownvoices.

“According to the principles espoused by this movement, to have my story be appreciated, I’ll need to make myself unsafe,” an aspiring author and member of the LGBTQ+ community wrote in a Twitter message. “I’d have to sell myself to sell a book.”

The above quote comes from Kat Rosenfield at Refinery29, who has written an excellent article about how #ownvoices has been counterproductive to its mission.

Another glaring issue of #ownvoices is that it discourages white authors from including people of color from their books in fear of backlash for writing a character of color insensitively. The book-lovers of the internet are quick to pounce on authors who may have lacked the insight to include certain experiences when writing about characters of other races.

Unfortunately, it is still the case that white authors are more prevalent in traditional publishing companies, whose books garner the most attention from professional reviewers and have a wider public reach. This is why it’s incredibly important for white authors to include characters of color, or at least acknowledge marginalized communities in a respectful and informed way. So while I believe Schwab was staying true to #ownvoices in The Invisible Life, some of that may have been motivated by the fear of dealing with angry reader backlash. She took the extreme route of pretty much entirely excluding any marginalized groups.

The choice of whiteness & white feminism

Let me clarify: I am not upset that Schwab didn’t write a non-white main character or love interest. In fact, I think it would have been disastrous if she had tried to write a 450-page introspective novel from the point of view of someone of a different race. I don’t expect any white authors in general to write deeper narratives about marginalized groups, though the inclusion of them in the story would be nice.

My issue is with this book specifically advertising itself as a depiction of global travel, art, and history.

In a book described as “a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art” (quote pulled from book description), it is an active choice to focus on whiteness. It’s an active choice to only discuss white history and white art. It is an active choice to choose North American and Europe as the two continents the story is playing across.

In a book about “a girl forgotten by time”, it is a choice to exclude those whose stories have been erased by history over and over again. This phrase is the type of language often used by white feminists, with the implicit connotation that it is a white woman forgotten by time. This book doesn’t have strong feminist tones, but any that it does have is focused on white women.

As I mentioned previously, a woman named Beatrice is the single Black character in the novel. And every single time Addie’s sees her, she thinks about how absolutely stunning Beatrice is. It is ok the first time, when Addie is first meeting her. Physical description of a character is important. However, repeating this thought several times after this first encounter feels very weird, with a similar vibe to the “I’m not racist, I have a Black friend” argument. It feels a lot like tokenism and also a bit objectifying. Look, reader, it seems to say, I’m calling a Black person gorgeous so it’s ok that I erase non-white history for the rest of the story.

What I would have liked to have seen

I’m not calling for the rewrite of this book from a POC perspective. I’m not calling for a reworking of the plot to include social justice or humanitarian efforts. However, the complete lack of non-white culture and history felt purposeful, or at best willfully ignorant. And from an author who has written many NYT best sellers, I expect a bit more effort towards inclusivity and diversity. I think it’s the responsibility of someone as traditionally successful as Schwab to write books that at least acknowledge marginalized groups, especially with the way the book was advertised. Her books garner huge waves of attention, and I think she should be using that platform a little more effectively.

So what are some changes that could have helped this?

1. Mention of non-white and female historical figures.

Over the course of the book, Addie mentions, and even meets, figures such as Shakespeare, Voltaire, and Napoleon. Voltaire being actively racist seems like a major reason to not include him in the book. Beyond this huge oversight, this was also a missed opportunity for Schwab to include women and POC who were equally important for their historical contributions. It would have taken very little effort to swap out the names and would have made the book felt more rounded-out.

2. Visits to Asian and African countries.

Again, it seems like a simple swapping of names may have alleviated the western-centric themes throughout this book. A simple addendum of Addie’s visits to China, say, or Egypt, would have made her the worldly traveler that Schwab is making her out to be.

3. The reallocation of a few pages to include mention of historical events.

Addie basically spends 450 pages talking about herself and her feelings. A few pages dedicated to mentioning world issues, bloody revolutions, colonialism, etc. wouldn’t have taken away from that. And again, it would have supported Schwab’s claims of Addie being an incredibly well-read and intelligent woman.

4. Additional BIPOC characters.

Many readers have said that they want to see stories where the author writes the personality of a character, then gives them a race or sexual orientation, etc., and makes nuanced changes to them based on that. There isn’t always a need to write about the oppression or struggles about a marginalized character. As author Francina Simone put it, “Sometimes my Blackness is a struggle, but that doesn’t mean my whole life is. Imprints want those kinds of books, but it’s feeding the crowd who wants…I don’t want to call it trauma porn, but it kind of is.”

5. …Or at least don’t be weird about the Black character already in the book.

I would have liked to see Schwab flesh out Beatrice’s character to be less about how gorgeous she is and more about who she is as a human being.

From a completely literary standpoint, things like this would have made the book feel more believable. It would have fleshed out Addie’s character and her relationship with the world as a whole. As it was, it was a celebration of life, but only Addie’s. I think this made the book feel less satisfying on the whole.

The Invisible Life of BIPOC

I would like to clarify that my interpretation of BIPOC includes Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. These groups were severely underrepresented in this book, a fact that most readers seem to have overlooked.

I want to read more books by BIPOC. But when the publishing industry looks the way it does (see below), we’re gonna need white authors to start being more aware of how they portray marginalized characters, communities, and histories in their book.

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