Hello, my lovely bi bookworms! O of the things I learn the longer I live is that there are so many things I want to do, learn, and see, I really won’t have enough time to do them in one human lifetime. But what if I had the chance to expand my years without sacrificing my youth? What would I offer as the price for that exchange? And would it be worth that sacrifice? This is the question at the heart of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020) by V.E. Schwab, a centuries-spanning fantasy about the titular French girl who makes a Faustian deal with a dark god for an extended life; but in exchange, as she discovers, she will be utterly forgotten by anyone she ever meets.
I’m a total sucker for heady stories that explore these larger, fantastical premises (The Time Traveler’s Wife, etc.), so when someone mentioned a different project I was working on reminded them of this story, I found myself interested. Then when a second acquaintance recommended it and that noted author Schwab had recently written an essay about her slow coming-out experience, I was even more deeply intrigued. So I went for a COVID-safe hang out with a friend at a local bookstore and picked up the New York Times bestseller to check it out for myself. But when I read the clear mention of Addie’s bisexual attractions literally on page one, I knew I had to cover it for Bi Book Club.
Despite the fact Schwab has written multiple queer characters in her other popular works, I braced myself for her main character’s sexual fluidity to be a fleeting, cursory mention in the first ten pages. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading modern novels long enough that I don’t expect to see thorough, nuanced bi representation (save a few noted exceptions I’ve previously covered). So I was ready to read Invisible Life with a cynic’s eye, betting I’d come across less than a handful of mentions of Addie’s bisexuality and only used for titillating effect.
Much to my surprise and delight, Schwab blew right through my preconceived notions of representation by making both of her lead characters explicitly and casually bi. The author weaves their attractions through the narrative like a golden thread — catching just enough of the light to set off the rest of the weaving pattern without eclipsing it.
While main characters Addie and Henry experience love and loss throughout the course of their stories, their attractions — no matter the gender of their beloved — are never something they have any existential crises over. Sometimes other supplementary characters raise eyebrows or judge them for their sexuality, but they never judge themselves for it. As Schwab put it in her essay, her characters are “never reduced to their queerness, only expanded by it.” Indeed, their bisexuality is yet another facet of the diamond of their characters, which sometimes gets its moments to shine but doesn’t dominate the effect — only adding more dimension to their development.
That said, I still have quibbles. While Schwab makes it plain her characters are “attracted to the person first, and the gender second,” she never dares to use the word “bisexual” when describing them or when they describe themselves. If memory serves, the closest term used in the 400-page-plus tome is “queer” or “fluid” — both of which, don’t get me wrong, are perfectly lovely. But it still feels like a missed opportunity — especially since Addie lived through the invention of the word in the late 1800s. It could have added a mini-epiphany to her extraordinary, lyrical life. In a novel infused with hundreds of miniature, magical moments, having that sort of passage to lightly underline the characters’ sexualities would have served both character and reader. I know Addie’s life is all about being elusive and survival, but her impeccable memory would have seized upon the distinction with fervor — if others can’t remember her after they turn away, she could at least remember this part of herself and how she is still human, still thrumming with life.
But, as I said, those are mere quibbles. This is one of the most fascinating novels I have read in years. To say I found Invisible Life an absorbing read is a hilarious understatement. I stayed up late, savoring sentences and poring over pages, disappointing my cat, who was trying to usher me to bed. I think I even blew off some plans with friends (like we all so casually did in the before-times. Sorry, buddies).
The truth is when a novel really takes hold of my life, it’s physically painful to put it down and get back to pesky necessities like sleep and cooking. Schwab’s novel, with its stirring queer characters nestled at the heart of it, held me in a vice-like grip for the past week. And I don’t regret a second of it. I can now name it as one of my favorite novels of all time. It is, despite the devil’s best efforts, unforgettable.