I first encountered The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab on bookstagram where it seemed like everyone was discussing the story. This novel hit the NY Times Bestseller List for 37 weeks straight through July this year, and not without good reason. In my opinion, the story more than lives up to the hype, and it is so effectively compelling because of the symbolism Schwab weaves through the narrative. Today I want to discuss three of the most important motifs that make Addie’s story so memorable and how aspiring authors can learn from Schwab’s writing to create meaningful symbols of their own. This will contain some spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet, beware of that before reading.
Adeline LaRue is a young woman living in the small town of Villon, France in 1741, who desperately wants to see more of the world. She feels trapped in an engagement she doesn’t want, and fears the headlong rushing of time, saying, “I don’t want to live and die in the same ten meter plot.” Her faith is torn between the Christian God of her parent’s and the old gods of her elder friend, Estele. On the night of her wedding, she flees into the woods and pleas for some higher power to save her from her fate, and the night answers. Despite Estele’s warnings to never pray to the gods who answer after dark, Adeline strikes a deal with him. At first, she offers a wooden ring, carved for her as a child by her father, but the god doesn’t deal in “trinkets.” They bargain, and draw their terms: immortality in exchange for her soul when she doesn’t want it anymore.
When she returns to the town, she finds that everyone she knew has forgotten her. She cannot remind them of her name, because every time she tries to speak the words, they get stuck in her throat. She cannot write or leave any permanent mark. Any interactions “reset” the curse. As soon as the other person walks away, they forget her again. However, she can steal. She takes some bare essentials and a wooden bird from her father’s workshop before fleeing the town. The story follows Addie – no longer Adeline – between her past through the centuries, and modern day NYC, as she navigates her curse and meets Henry Strauss, the first person in over 300 years who remembers her.
The Wooden Bird
As a child, Addie went to market with her father and sat by his elbow in the workshop as he carved his wares. Of all the toys he made, the wooden bird was her favorite. As she grows older and is banned from going into town, it represents the freedom of childhood that she misses. After her curse, after she leaves her hometown, the bird is the last remaining object to tie her to Villon and her family. She keeps it with her through the miserable first year, as she faces hunger, homelessness, sickness, and loneliness. It’s both a comfort, and a crutch, keeping her near home in the neighboring town, and reminding her of how much she’s lost. When she breaks it herself, it mends itself, the damage as impermanent as her ability to stay in people’s memories. But when it is broken by someone else, the wing stays snapped. Losing this symbol is part of her decision to move on to Paris and start putting her past behind her, but it isn’t completely gone. When a sculptor finds the broken bird in the street, he recreates the series, and Addie finds it later in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Throughout the story, Addie inspires artists to create music and paintings based on her image – often marked with her iconic seven star freckles, but the bird is the first indirect mark she makes on the world, stealing a bit more of her freedom back from her curse.
Wedding rings symbolize commitment and love. They’re a physical manifestation of a bond between two people, and within the context of the story, that connotation brings a powerful message. The wooden ring that Addie carries was a gift from her father, meant for her to wear on her wedding day. After losing the bird, it is the only thing binding her to home. She runs away from her wedding and tries to sacrifice the ring, but the darkness “lets” her keep it in his own twisted way. At this moment, the ring also carries the connotation of the curse. It represents both her isolation and her independence as her relationship with the darkness progresses over the years.
She names the darkness Luc (and I’ll talk about names next), because he is the only person who can remember her. And she is the only person who has met him more than twice. Most of his victims only see the darkness on the day of their deal, and when he returns to collect their souls, but Luca and Addie have an anniversary every year. He annually demands her surrender, but Addie ran away from surrender once, and she defies him every time. This fraught dynamic involves into a tense almost-romance, as they need each other’s attention while simultaneously and fundamentally opposing each other’s goals. They both want to be recognized and loved, but Addie wants freedom, and Luc can only imagine possessing her. She sometimes desperately calls on him by putting on the ring. Other decades, it’s a battle of wills to see who will cave to the pressure and initiate the visit first.
By the time Addie meets Henry, she and Luc fell out, and she avoids putting on or even touching the ring if she can help it. She throws it away and purposefully leaves it behind, but it always returns to her, despite her hatred of the thing. Unlike the bird, she cannot lose this memory. This also creates a poignant parallel between her and Henry’s battle scar – his failed proposal to Tabitha, and the ring he keeps wrapped in a bloody handkerchief in a drawer. They both carried rings from failed relationships on the night of their respective deals, and though neither knows it at the time, the conversation is LOADED with subtext that pulls at the heartstrings as you realize the reality of the tragic situation. The dramatic irony is palpable, and the tension keeps you turning the page to see how it’ll all come crumbling down.
Names are inextricably tied to identity, and in a story that surrounds memory and dehumanization, the name “Addie” becomes a symbol in and of itself. First, it’s a nickname given to her by Estele that she prefers to the name given to her by her parents at her christening. She never liked Adeline, and she leaves that woman behind in Villon. When she rehearses her history to avoid forgetting her own past, she repeats, “I am Addie La Rue.” She cannot use either name, and we’re reminded of the full impact of her curse every time she’s introduced to someone new and has to lie. Luc attempts to erase her from history, and stripping her of an identity is a final cruel step in his efforts to completely dehumanize her. Since he’s the only one who can use her name, it becomes a weapon on his lips, and he insists on only calling her Adeline. He stills sees her as the scared child little girl who came to him in the woods. Adeline evokes loss and desperation. Addie represents defiance and triumph. Addie is the new identity, independent from Luc, and it is the name she gives Henry. It is the name that he immortalizes in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue as written diagetically. She still cannot leave a mark of her own, but now she as an ally, and a legacy. The fact that we can read a book that proudly proclaims her name is a testament to how important this symbol is to her. And more importantly, its memorable. When I remember reading this book, I remember crying with relief for Addie’s sake when I heard the phrase, “I remember you.”
A symbol forces you to remember every other time it was used in the story. A symbol wielded wisely is a flashback that doesn’t need any extra words and evokes raw emotion. It invests your audience into the story and immediately makes them relate to the characters. To create strong symbols, find what the character wants most, then give them something sentimental and unavoidable. It should force them to confront their feelings and baggage, whether they want to or not. Used selectively, this maximizes drama, irony, and the potential for character parallels that reframe relationships. No matter if it’s a weapon or a comfort, a symbol should make an impact. Even though Addie couldn’t make a mark, she could be an inspiration – a symbol – for other artists. Take this story as your inspiration. Go make great art.
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