Warning: includes spoilers!
Overall: 4/5 stars.
What would life be like if no one could remember who you are? If after every interaction, the other person’s memory of you was completely erased.
This is the life of Addie LaRue. She made a deal with an evil god that gave her “freedom”, except freedom means that no one ever remembers meeting you. She’s also immortal. Also, it’s not just that people can’t remember you, but objects can’t either. You can’t write, leave footprints, create any kind of physical mark on the world—any such mark gets erased immediately.
Sounds fun, kinda. Also hard. Cause none of your family remembers you either. Or friends. Or the person you paid for your hotel room or your drink. Everyone sees you as an imposter, a stranger, or worse—a witch.
But Addie makes do, over time. She figures out the one way she can have things without leaving a mark: stealing. If you steal something and no one notices, apparently you haven’t really left a mark. At least, not one that can be traced back to you.
Another fun way to leave a mark is to inspire people. Artists specifically. Like, you play a song for them, and when you leave they don’t remember you, but they do have some vague recollection of the song. So you kinda write the song through them. Isn’t it funny, how we don’t really know where our ideas come from? Inspiration is a mystery.
Anyway, I really enjoyed all the little ways Addie made do with her curse. It’s really funny to see someone saying the exact same thing to her every time they meet her (e.g. “Your freckles are like constellations 🥰”. Her freckles came up a lot. She had seven of them.). It’s also funny to see people be totally confused the second after she leaves their presence. In one scene she’s walking past a security guard of an apartment building; the guy pulls up the phone to start calling police, but as soon as she’s in the elevator and the doors close, the guy has forgotten what he picked up the phone for. This also felt like a real-life scene to me: being in the middle of an errand and suddenly forgetting what you were trying to do. Perhaps you were having a conversation with Addie LaRue.
So yea, much of the story is about memory, and leaving a mark. What is your identity if no one remembers you, if the world doesn’t remember you?
I’m really interested in psychology and the brain, so perhaps that’s why the whole memory element of it stood out to me. I almost viewed the story as: Addie lives in a world where everyone else has a very particular memory disorder. Brain disorders can be very weird. This kind of disorder felt at least somewhat plausible to me. (Although that doesn’t account for the fact objects forget her too; we’d need Tenet-style entropy reversal for that.)
Halfway through the story, Addie tries to steal a copy of The Odyssey from a bookstore, but the guy at the counter catches her. When she goes back the next day, the guy is outraged that she’d dare to come back after trying to steal. Plot twist! He remembers her. For the first time in three hundred years, someone remembers her.
I was very pleasantly surprised by this twist. Didn’t see it coming. It turns out that the guy, Henry, has made a deal with the devil of his own. (I also did not see that coming.)
Why did Addie make the deal? Because she was trapped. She was doomed to marry some dude, to become like her boring friend Isabelle. She was also doomed to stay in her tiny village her whole life. I felt like I could understand her reasons for wanting to run away.
Why did Henry make his deal? He was depressed, and felt unlovable. His long-term girlfriend Tabitha rejected his marriage proposal. He felt like he was never enough for anyone. He dates men too, which I liked. (Addie’s also queer.) But he never felt loved. And the devil offered him a chance to be loved by everyone.
What does the devil get in exchange for these deals? He gets the right to reap their souls. Lol. I’m not big on the whole soul concept—the idea that there’s an immutable essence to you that we can identify—so I didn’t care much for this part of the story, but it did have some significance to the plot.
Like Addie, Henry’s deal ends up being a bit of a curse. It actually kinda sucks when everyone is enamored with you. This is something I’ve thought about before: the idea that if you could actually have everything you wanted right when you want it, you would become miserable very quickly. I’ve almost used this as a little meditation for myself whenever I’m especially frustrated. Like, “Ok imagine your problem is solved, you become rich instantly, everyone wants to date you, you get the job of your dreams, you’re healthy forever, you eat the best food….” and then I begin to see how awful that existence would be. We need something to struggle with, otherwise it all feels empty.
So I felt like I could understand Henry’s psychology too.
Then Henry and Addie fall in love, and I won’t go into the details of how it ends given I’ve spoiled like 95% of the story already.
I learned the word palimpsest from this book. The author says palimpsest a lot. Honestly don’t know if I understand the usage of it fully, but here’s a try: all the things Addie does leave a mark on are a palimpsest of her ideas and identity. Did I get it?
I read this book as part of a book club, and I seemed to be one of the few who actually liked it. Most others thought it was meh: shallow, boring, immature. In addition to making me feel unsophisticated, this was fascinating to me. How do people reading the same thing come away with such wildly different takes on it? Like, we all read the exact same story, the same set of words. But clearly all of our brains were in different starting states.
You can see this in the Amazon reviews too. Fiction books seem to bring out this wild polarity in opinions. It doesn’t seem as pronounced with nonfiction. Consider the reviews of this book:
2 stars – Hollow
5 stars – Much more complex than a romance between a human and a devil
2 stars – Monotonous
5 stars – This is a story for everyone, and it’s one for the ages
1 star – Invisible interest
5 stars – Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous
and so on. Of course, expectation plays a role here. I’m sure some of the negative reviews are partly a response to the hysterical praise. If you know everyone else loves a book, and you expect it to be really great, and then it falls short, you feel a need to correct the common misunderstanding: “don’t waste your time, this isn’t all that it’s made out to be.”
In any case, I can understand some of the criticisms:
Character development: there isn’t much of it. Everyone stays about the same.
Emotional depth: also not much of it. I didn’t get that emotionally invested in the characters themselves, though I was very invested in the plot.
Writing: I thought the writing was very straightforward, which I liked. But it was also good. I’m not good at talking about metaphors and similes and stuff, so I’ll just give some examples:
March is such a fickle month. It is the seam between winter and spring—though seam suggests an even hem, and March is more like a rough line of stitches sewn by an unsteady hand, swinging wildly between January gusts and June greens. You don’t know what you’ll find, until you step outside.
There are a hundred kinds of silence. There’s the thick silence of places long sealed shut, and the muffled silence of ears stoppered up. The empty silence of the dead, and the heavy silence of the dying. There is the hollow silence of a man who has stopped praying, and the airy silence of an empty synagogue, and the held-breath silence of someone hiding from themselves. There is the awkward silence that fills the space between people who don’t know what to say. And the taut silence that falls over those who do, but don’t know where or how to start. Henry doesn’t know what kind of silence this is, but it is killing him.
Pace: a friend commented the book could’ve been a short story. I can resonate with this. At some points the story got a little repetitive. Some flashbacks/flash-forwards that seemed unnecessary.
A last note: an important theme of the story for me was that Addie could find beauty in spite of all the misery she had to suffer through. That despite what we’re missing, if we really pay attention to what is here, it can be enough. There’s beauty all around us. This is captured in Addie’s conversation with the evil god, as she’s explaining to him that she’s actually enjoying what she has and doesn’t want to give up:
“I saw an elephant,” says Addie, and the words are like cold water on coals. The darkness stills beside her, and she continues, gaze fixed on the ramshackle house, and the broken roof, and the open sky above. “Two, in fact. They were in the palace grounds, as part of some display. I didn’t know animals could be so large. And there was a fiddler in the square the other day,” she presses on, her voice steady, “and his music made me cry. It was the prettiest song I’d ever heard. I had Champagne, drank it straight from the bottle, and watched the sun set over the Seine while the bells rang out from Notre-Dame, and none of it would have happened back in Villon.” She turns to look at him. “It has only been two years,” she says. “Think of all the time I have, and all the things I’ll see.”