I get a book for each of my son’s as part of their Christmas gifts from me. A few years ago, wandering through an old-fashioned thing called a bookstore, I decided to get The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho for my older son. He read it and said he liked it. My younger son read it and said he liked it. I read it and thought, “it’s okay.” It was a pleasant story, but it really didn’t strike a chord with me.
Fast forward to last month and with my older son again going off to college, I had a few days off to help pack him up and move him down to Long Beach. With a trip planned, I did what I usually do — treat myself to a couple of paperbacks for reading while I’m away. Perusing the bookstore again, I found another book by Paulo Coelho. Here is what the back of the book has to say about the story:
“I want to change. I need to change. I’m gradually losing touch with myself. Adultery, the provocative new novel by Paulo Coelho, best-selling author of The Alchemist and Eleven Minutes, explores the question of what it means to life life fully and happily, finding the balance between life’s routine and the desire for something new.”
Well, you know, that little blurb just spoke volumes to me. I picked the book up and read it that weekend. It had me with the opening words:
“Every morning, when I open my eyes to the so-called ‘new day,’ I feel like closing them again, staying in bed, and not getting up. But I can’t do that.”
We then learn about the narrator, a Swiss woman with a perfect marriage to a perfect husband. Two charming children. And a job she wants. And none of it is satisfactory to her anymore. As perfect as things seem to be — her marriage is stale, her kids are more in tune with their electronics, and her job keeps her from the things she wants to do. Only problem is she’s not really sure what she wants to do, until she meets an old boy friend, ushering in a battle between the things she should be doing — caring for her family, doing her work — and the things she wants to do. Her old boyfriend.
Hello! Talk about a book that speaks to me. Those opening two sentences describe how I feel every day. The narrator’s dissatisfaction with what she should view as a good life describes much of what I struggle with as well. Rather than getting up and confronting it all, far easier would be to just stay in bed. But I can’t do that. So, I soldier on — wondering where the happiness is.
And this is where I think the book fails. It really bothers me when the blurb for a book over promises. The blurb says the book “explores the question of what it means to live life fully and happily, finding the balance between life’s routine and the desire for something new.” Only problem is that while the narrator was exploring the question, she was completely disinterested in “finding the balance.” And, ultimately, the ending basically allowed her to escape the responsibility for the decisions she made while she was in her exploration mode.
I checked out how this book is reviewed on Amazon. While it has the laundry list of positive reviews from the professional critics, 20% of the readers who rated it on Amazon gave it one star, which I’m pretty certain is the highest percentage of one star reviews I’ve ever seen. (Well, except for books I read about Israel and Palestine which have a more balanced presentation of the conflict and all of the pro-Israel lunatics come on and rate the book one star and accuse the author of being an anti-Semite.)
I read a few of the one star reviews and many of them have a point. There are aspects of this story that clearly reflect that it is written by a man trying to narrate it from a female perspective. And some of it just doesn’t work. And then there’s just the whole ending and how she is able to escape responsibility. I think Coelho likes to think he wrote stories (and I think his readers expect this as well) that teach a lesson. There’s some moral or ethical lesson to learn. The only lesson I learned from this book is to make sure you marry a perceptive, but forgiving spouse.
If I had to rate it on Amazon, I’d probably give it three stars. It’s still a good story. Coelho has a way with words and a way of communicating feelings that is masterful. There are a number of places where I dog-eared the page because of something he wrote. I may come back to some of those passages and write more here about them. But at the end of the day … the story has too many flaws to rate higher than that.