an ethical critique of addie larue

A quick introduction

From the publisher. Distinctions include NYPL Best Books of the Year, Amazon.com Best Books of the Year, Oprah.com 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.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Texas, 1934. Millions are out of work and a drought has broken the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as the crops are failing, the water is drying up, and dust threatens to bury them all. One of the darkest periods of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, has arrived with a vengeance. 

In this uncertain and dangerous time, Elsa Martinelli—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or go west, to California, in search of a better life. The Four Winds is an indelible portrait of America and the American Dream, as seen through the eyes of one indomitable woman whose courage and sacrifice will come to define a generation.

Disclaimer: I received this book for review from NetGalley. Read below for my spoiler-free review.

Kristin Hannah is well-known within the realm of literary fiction for her tales of love and loss. Her newest historical fiction, The Four Winds, is the first I’ve read from her, and her reputation for gripping and heartbreaking stories held true…for the most part.

I will start by saying that although I am not predisposed towards the Dustbowl/Great Depression era (or much of American history in the early 20th century), I did end up appreciating the insight as to how life would have treated someone during this time. Similar to pandemic circumstances, there was the constant loom of uncertainty and fear as people struggled to feed their families. For that reason, I think this book is a particularly timely release that may shine some hope upon dark times.

To me, the most interesting part of the story was seeing how those who had lost everything to the environmental ruin of the Dust Bowl reacted to the apathy and greed of wealthy Americans. Their struggle for survival was fascinating to read about, especially since the events are historically based. This story would have been a great supplement to learning about this era from a textbook, and Hannah clearly did her research.

Unfortunately, a large chunk of the story is focused solely on the childhood/early adulthood of our protagonist, Elsa. Hannah’s goal was clearly to show a strong arc of her character development, but I could not stand her for half of the book. I understand that how she was treated bred trauma that she couldn’t shake, but I was too frustrated to sympathize. That, combined with the repetition and slow pace of the first half of the book, made it a chore trudging through.

That being said, I do think the ending was good enough to make the slower parts of the book feel rewarding. I do realize that there needed to be buildup to reach the conclusion that The Four Winds came to. The last fifth of the book was fast-paced and absolutely heartbreaking, which is why I am bumping my initial review of 3 stars up to 3.5.

Another thing I really appreciated was that the relationships focused on motherhood and the bond between siblings (with a tiny amount of romance in between). The love that I could feel through the pages made me want to call my own mom and remind her of how much she means to me. I think that Hannah’s ability to convey strong emotion speaks volumes to her skill as a writer.

TLDR; starts out slow, ending is worth it, you’ll probably learn something, you’ll definitely cry.

Happy reading,

Lore by Alexandra Bracken

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own.

Every seven years, the Agon begins. As punishment for a past rebellion, nine Greek gods are forced to walk the earth as mortals, hunted by the descendants of ancient bloodlines, all eager to kill a god and seize their divine power and immortality. Long ago, Lore Perseous fled that brutal world in the wake of her family’s sadistic murder by a rival line, turning her back on the hunt’s promises of eternal glory. For years she’s pushed away any thought of revenge against the man–now a god–responsible for their deaths.

Yet as the next hunt dawns over New York City, two participants seek out her help: Castor, a childhood friend of Lore believed long dead, and a gravely wounded Athena, among the last of the original gods.

The goddess offers an alliance against their mutual enemy and, at last, a way for Lore to leave the Agon behind forever. But Lore’s decision to bind her fate to Athena’s and rejoin the hunt will come at a deadly cost–and still may not be enough to stop the rise of a new god with the power to bring humanity to its knees.

Good to know:

  • TW: sexual assault, gore, violence
  • (Probably) a standalone
  • YA urban fantasy
  • 450 pages

Hey everyone, I hope you’ve been staying safe and keeping busy! I know the past few months have given me the chance to read a lot of the books I’ve been eyeing, and I was super excited to receive an arc of this one.

Lore follows the story of Melora Perseus, the last of the descendants of the hero Perseus (I recommend reading the synopsis above, it’s a bit hard to explain the premise). It’s filled to the brim with fight scenes, romance, and good old Greek god drama. It is definitely a unique take that I was excited to jump into–I went in with expectations of something in the vein of Percy Jackson.

Unfortunately, Lore was written with the same simplistic style of Percy Jackson without the lovable characters or gripping plot. From the start, I was quite disappointed by the way things progressed; it followed the formula of a typical YA–all action, no substance. The story moved at a non-stop pace, but I was never brought to the edge of my seat and it was almost a chore to keep reading. The writing lacked subtlety and the “plot twists”, while somewhat unexpected, felt inconsequential.

I never felt connected to the characters or invested in their story. I feel like Bracken tried to create an anti-hero complex within Lore, but it was shallow and a bit confusing. Lore and the lover boy had zero chemistry and the friendships were absolutely lackluster. The side characters were basically cardboard and the antagonists are out-villained by Doctor Doofenshmirtz. There were violent scenes that were horrible to read and didn’t contribute much beyond shock factor.

I feel like I don’t have much beyond complaints for this one. It was a long book that I didn’t enjoy very much. I can’t tell if it’s because I’ve outgrown YA or because this one was particularly bad. Based on my past experiences with Alexandra Bracken (which weren’t great), I’m hoping it’s the latter.

If you’re looking for Greek-mythology inspired books, I recommend Circe or Song of Achilles.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Shielded (Shielded, #1) by KayLynn Flanders

During a routine survey mission on an uncolonized planet, Kira finds an alien relic. At first she’s delighted, but elation turns to terror when the ancient dust around her begins to move.

As war erupts among the stars, Kira is launched into a galaxy-spanning odyssey of discovery and transformation. First contact isn’t at all what she imagined, and events push her to the very limits of what it means to be human. 

While Kira faces her own horrors, Earth and its colonies stand upon the brink of annihilation. Now, Kira might be humanity’s greatest and final hope . . .

So I was a middle-grade reader of the Inheritance Cycle and at that point in my life I absolutely loved it. Rereading it recently opened my eyes to some of the flaws that I may not have noticed all those years ago, but it will always hold a special place in my heart. That being said, when I heard about this new book, I was incredibly excited to see how Paolini had evolved, despite my being less enthusiastic about sci-fi.

Turns out this kind of sci-fi is definitely my style. It took Paolini years of rewrites to come out with the final product…and it shows. This was an adventure of epic proportions, and I am still stunned at how he managed to build such an intricate story with philosophical themes about what it means to be human and the value of life in general. This was an 900-page behemoth that kept me turning pages nonstop.

This novel isn’t just “pew pew” back and forth until the bad guy is dead (although there is a lot of that); there are elements that I wouldn’t have expected to see in a sci-fi like this. The character development of our main character, Kira, is pretty astounding. She’s smart and brave while still having moments of doubt and anguish. She’s the perfect companion for this sort of adventure, and I was so proud of who she had become by the end of the book. I don’t think the other characters were nearly as well-developed, but honestly I’m ok with that since everything was from her perspective anyway. Her character arc encompassed a lot of the aspects that brought depth into the story; her exploration of morality and self took this to another level for me. Seeing her struggles of being human juxtaposed against the alien lifeforms/technologies made her decisions relatable while still leaving room for the wonders of the universe.

Also, I was pleasantly surprised by the prose. The Eragon series is a bit notorious for its lack of artistry, and I think Paolini has come a long way in that regard. He has always been a strong storyteller, and this time I think the language was able to reinforce that skill. It wasn’t flowery or especially individualistic, but I think that’s ok for a novel of this length. Having streamlined (but well-written) prose for 900 pages is definitely preferable, at least in my opinion.

There were a few plot points that kind of fizzled out without any bearing on the main direction of the story, which was a bit frustrating. I wish these hadn’t been included because they just made the plot drag a bit. In addition, I think there was a bit too much extraneous description that could have also been trimmed away (descriptions of walking from point A to point B, etc.). Overall, though, I think To Sleep followed a nice arc that wrapped up with a perfectly ambiguous ending. It left a lot of room for thought while still being satisfying.

There are a few things in the afterword that really just made me want to read this again, including affirmation of Eragon Easter eggs as well as a hint towards deeper meanings of certain things in the book. Maybe someone will do an analysis of this one day so that I don’t have to…

Anyways, that about sums up my initial thoughts. I would highly recommend this to Paolini lovers, even if sci-fi isn’t your cup of tea. I think the story was really well done, and I’m so glad I got to see the universe from Kira’s eyes. It’s clear that there is a true love for the beauty of the unknown parts of the vast world we live in. While I may not understand all of the technical jargon*, the wonder and trepidation of being such a small piece in the universe is something I have a lot of appreciation for.

*For those of you who are not comfortable in sci-fi settings, I was in the same boat (ship?) and I don’t think it detracted from my experience. While there is a fair amount of technical jargon, I found that it was fine that I wasn’t able to follow it exactly (also, I’m not sure if it was actually logical technicalities or if it was a load of baloney). I thought that the culture/dialogue was built up well enough that I could understand the gist of what was happening during the especially tech-heavy scenes.