November 2020. COVID-19 had just booted me out of Ann Arbor and sent me home. As I finished up my first semester of college from my childhood bedroom, I felt it — the feeling I would come to label as “the storm.” It was the first time I felt my mental health truly dip, a loneliness that seeped through my entire body into my bones. So I did what I always do when I need to put my mind elsewhere: I picked up a book. This time, it was “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V. E. Schwab.
Art has always been my medium of escapism. Whether it be books, television, movies or a trip to a museum, I have been using art to get outside my own head from a very young age. It’s why I spent the year between ages eight and nine imagining myself at Hogwarts and why now, almost 11 years later, I undertake “Harry Potter” movie marathons biannually. It’s why I try to visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art when I come home to New York and I take a trip to the University of Michigan Museum of Art almost every Friday at school. Since my field of study is pure STEM, full of straightforward and rigid answers, I find it necessary to have an outlet for all that goes unexpressed.
I expected “Invisible Life” to take me to a new world with magic, Faustian bargains and adventure. While those elements were present, I was more shocked to find my own experiences reflected right back at me. A 323-year-old woman cursed with eternal youth and health, unable to leave a mark on the world, and a man cursed with a year of life in which everyone sees only what they want in him. Where do I fit in? Apparently, everywhere.
Addie is a dreamer. In many ways she’s like Belle from “Beauty and the Beast,” dreaming of adventure in the “great wide somewhere,” with a strong connection to art and a deep admiration of her father. Anyone who knows me well knows that “Beauty and the Beast” has always been my favorite fairytale, and so I was instantly drawn in. Addie’s story, however, rips away that glimmering facade of the Disney princess and dives in deeper. Addie gets her wish for freedom by literally trading her soul, and from that point on, her world is turned upside down. She is unable to be wounded, fall sick or die. But she’s also unable to leave an impression or a memory of herself. Everyone she meets forgets her; every mark she makes disappears.
“Stories are a way to preserve oneself. To be remembered. And to forget.” Addie’s connection with books is one I related to right off the bat. Schwab’s language captured the feeling of escapism through literature perfectly. Addie deems art as necessary to her survival in her infinitely long life. Her descriptions of watching movies and seeing the sea for the first time brought out the same emotions I felt while sitting in a theater or standing on the shore. Addie truly felt the beauty of the world, and I did too. Yet despite having access to so many beautiful experiences, Addie felt lonely in her life. And I did too. It was this empathy that I carried with me throughout the rest of the book.
Just when I thought I couldn’t relate to a character more, Henry burst onto the scene. Henry was the second character in this novel to strike a deal with the devil, though for very different reasons and for much less time. As a bookseller, he had that same level of admiration and understanding of good art. As a human, he had experiences that put everything I was feeling at the time into words. It was because of Henry that I labeled that period in my life as “the storm.” As Schwab put it, “It would be years before Henry learned to think of those dark times as storms, to believe that they would pass, if he could simply hold on long enough.” Henry’s bouts of rain came about due to his feelings of loneliness, those feelings of not being enough that seem to be all too common among people my age. It didn’t take much for him to start feeling that way again. Anything could be a catalyst — a parent’s disapproval, a professor’s admonishment, a lover’s rejection. Henry was so tired of battening down the hatches that he traded his soul to just be enough for everyone.
Henry understood too late that you can’t make people love you, and if you’re really enough for everyone, then you’re doing something wrong. People aren’t meant for everyone — all you need is to be enough for yourself. As Henry spoke about talking to his family who wouldn’t understand because they’ve “never had a day of rain,” I felt it in the pit of my stomach. I felt it because I did understand, because I was weathering my own storm.
Addie and Henry’s time together was electric for both of them. Like all good things, however, it came to an end. Each went their own way understanding the importance of life and living it on your own terms. Both Henry and Addie left a piece of themselves with the other person, something that gave them the strength to keep going. Unbeknownst to them, they also left those pieces with me. As Addie and Henry taught me, I needed to find the beauty in life — in art — and understand that being alone is not the same as being lonely. Most of all, I had to believe with all my heart that at the end of the day, the storm always passes.
I read “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” for the second time a few days before writing this. On my second read-through, I found myself learning just as much as I did the first time around when I was in a completely different headspace. No matter how many times I return to this book, I think the message will always remain the same: There is no obstacle too large to overcome, and life’s wonders always make surmounting them worth it.
Daily Arts Writer Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.