Book Review: Invisibility by Andrea Cremer and David Levithan
Talk about difficult teen years. Stephen is 16 years old, lives in Manhattan… and has been invisible since birth. That’s right, NO ONE has ever seen him, and he’s never even seen himself. He has no idea what color eyes he has or what he looks like when he smiles. For most of his life, Stephen lived with his nurturing mother, but as Invisibility opens, it’s been a year since his mother’s death and Stephen is completely and utterly alone. His absent father pays the bills and is available via email, but Stephen lives solo in his apartment, observing people in parks and museums in lieu of companionship, and shopping online for all his basic needs. Stephen’s only knowledge about the cause of his condition is an overheard argument between his parents, in which his mother referred to a “curse”. Neither parent will discuss it with Stephen, and so he spends his days in solitude, with no hope of improvement and very little to live for.
All that changes when Elizabeth and her family move in down the hall. Elizabeth (who thinks she might prefer to be called Jo), her brother Laurie, and their mother have relocated to New York from Minnesota after Laurie was the victim of a traumatic hate crime. Elizabeth has had her faith in friendship and good will destroyed, and yearns for the anonymity of starting over in a big city.
Both Stephen and Elizabeth have their worlds turned upside down on the day that they meet in the hallway. For reasons that Stephen can’t understand, Elizabeth can see him. Of course, Elizabeth has no idea that there’s anything at all odd about this sweet, cute boy, until Laurie accidentally meets Stephen some weeks later and the shocking truth is revealed.
From there, Elizabeth and Stephen launch themselves into a quest to get answers and find a way to break the curse. With Laurie as a sidekick and supporter, they find Millie, a “spellseeker”, who explains why Elizabeth can see Stephen and introduces them to the world of cursecasters and spellseekers.
Did your eyes just glaze over a bit there? Because mine did at this point in the book. More on this in a moment.
The book, at this point, enters into a mad introduction to the world of spells and curses. Apparently, Elizabeth is a natural talent at seeing spells, and may even be one of the incredibly rare spellseekers who can not only see spells and curses, but can draw them off and dissipate them.
Let’s be clear, there really is a lot to like about Invisibility. David Levithan is an incredibly gifted and talented writer, and once again he joins up with a writing partner to coauthor a young adult novel. In this case, he and Andrea Cremer write alternating chapters, he as the voice of Stephen, she as the voice of Elizabeth. David Levithan has taken this approach with great success in previous novels such as Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (reviewed here) and Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List. Here, however, the voices of the two authors don’t blend particularly well: I didn’t always feel that I was reading one coherent novel, rather than two separate narratives. Chapter segues are occasionally jarring, and the timing from one POV chapter to the next doesn’t flow as naturally as it should.
And then there’s the plot. I enjoyed the beginning very much. Stephen’s situation is fascinating. David Levithan does a lovely job of portraying his loneliness and sorrow, being the perpetual outsider stuck in a hopeless life. Where it all becomes problematic for me is when the focus shifts away from Stephen and onto Elizabeth and her new special magical talents.
My main quibbles with Invisibility are:
- Whoa! Head over heels happens a bit too fast! Stephen and Elizabeth meet, and then, wham! They’re in love. No build up, not a whole lot of warning. It doesn’t feel earned. Frankly, from Stephen’s perspective, it’s a bit more understandable. After all, he’s never even spoken to a girl in his whole life, and here’s the first person he’s ever encountered who actually can see him! That’s got to feel pretty incredible. But for Elizabeth? I just didn’t feel it. Yes, she’s fascinated by Stephen’s unique situation, but to fall in love so suddenly? I didn’t believe it.
- Also in terms of Elizabeth, here she is, newly arrived from Minnesota to New York — and yet she does almost nothing to meet people, explore the city, or establish herself. Conveniently, it’s summer when she moves in, so there’s no school — but this makes it feel that she and Stephen develop a relationship in a vacuum, and I had to wonder how much her own isolation factors into her readiness to be “in love”.
- The book jacket copy stresses that Elizabeth “wishes for invisibility” and the ability to blend in — but since we never see her interact with peers other than Laurie and Stephen or even have the opportunity to blend in (or not), I didn’t feel that the story lived up to the description in this regard.
- Once the topic of cursecasters and spellseekers is introduced, Elizabeth’s abilities become the focus of the story, and I felt that Stephen’s experiences get lost in the shuffle. To me, he is far more interesting than Elizabeth, but he becomes a passive participant in the drama as Elizabeth is the one who drives the action.
- Okay, here’s the eyes-glazing-over part. The whole cursecaster/spellcaster business feels so… done. Once this element was introduced, my interest in the book really dropped off. Stephen’s situation is so interesting — but then to move into a story about ancient powers, a musty old collection of books, the ability to “see” curses and draw them out… maybe this is the only way to provide an explanation for Stephen, but I felt like I was reading a really different story than the one I started with. Witchy powers of one sort or another seem to pop up in every other YA novel these days; I didn’t think this was going to be another one of those.
- Perhaps if I hadn’t read David Levithan’s Every Day so recently, this might have felt fresher. In Every Day, the main character is also an outsider due to a weird, inexplicable circumstance that forever separates the main character from the chance of a normal life — until everything changes and the character finds new purpose after falling for that one special girl who can see beyond the surface. So yes, parts of the set-up of Invisibility felt a bit too familiar. Different stories, but not such different predicaments.
I do want to praise the snappy writing, the clever dialogue, and the humorous moments that pop up from time to time to lighten the mood. I couldn’t help giggling in certain places, such as :
“News flash,” he says. “I’m gay, not a witch. Gay and witch is Dumbledore, and last time I checked, he was still just a guy in a book.”
Be still, my Harry-Potter-lovin’ heart! I also enjoyed the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shout out to David Levithan’s excellent novel Will Grayson, Will Grayson, co-written with the amazing John Green. Little moments like this definitely added an element of fun to what is overall a pretty heavy mood throughout the book.
Invisibility has a dramatic climax, with plenty of action and some truly horrific events along the way. In particular, a nasty trail of curses inflicted on random people in Central Park is chilling in its violence and devastation. By the end, Elizabeth and Stephen reach a form of resolution, although not a solution. I do like that the ending is imperfect, rather than having our lovebirds overcome all adversity, beat the odds, have true love triumph, and all the various plot points that have become so clichéd by now. Instead, they find a way to move forward, but their problems are far from over.
I appreciate having an open-ended finale to the story, one that leaves the reader room to ponder what may happen and what the characters’ lives might be like going forward. I’m hoping, though, that this doesn’ t mean that there will be a sequel. Not everything needs to be wrapped up with a perfect happily-ever-after. There’s hope, despite the certainty of further challenges, and that feels fitting for Elizabeth and Stephen’s story.