The Alchemist

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Alchemist follows a boy from his humble beginnings as a shepherd through a mystical journey to discover his Personal Legend. Along the way, he experiences what at first seem to be distractions, but ultimately point him toward his ultimate goal.

I went into this book with mixed signals. The grocery store displays claimed it was "the epic journey that has captivated millions!" However, all the book reviews I read and the bloggers who noticed I was reading it seemed to absolutely hate it. This led me to think it was a "love it or hate it" kind of read, but in reality, I ended up being pretty ambivalent about the book. It had both negative and positive qualities, but they more or less canceled each other out in my mind.

My main complaint about this book is that it seemed disjointed, both stylistically and in the narrative. The book would seem like a fable, with stereotypical characters and an archetypal plot, and then suddenly, the boy would be acting like a punk teenager, annoyed with his teachers. That didn't fit in with the whole, "I'm going on a mythic journey symbolic of the human quest for joy" theme. I imagine Coelho was trying to make the character more believable and show the resistance people often have toward actually pursuing their goals, but it seemed out of place to me. I think the disjointed narrative may also have been Coelho's attempt to make the book seem true to life, so in some ways I appreciate it. It is true that when I think back on some of the things I have ended up doing, they seem pretty random - switching from a music major to neuroscience (with a few other random stops along the way)? Working with disabled people? Going to nursing school? While I love these things now, if you had told me about them when I was 15, I would have laughed in your face. So, yes, I agree that our lives and our "personal journeys" are disjointed. But in the setting, they felt a little jarring and out of place.

I did enjoy a few of the concepts in the book, however. I liked learning that muktab means "it is written." (A major phrase in one of my favorite movies, Slumdog Millionaire, and also the name of a character in the latest Alanna book I'm reading, which fits him perfectly. I never would have picked up on it otherwise!) I thought the love story was sweet. It was mainly when I was reading about the love story that I found some redeeming value in the book. And also - while the information wasn't presented in a way that wasn't especially meaningful to me, I do think it is important to "seek your Personal Legend" - except I call it seeking joy, and it isn't quite as absolutely defined a process as the one described in The Alchemist. If it was meant to be a self-help book, it failed me, because it didn't cause me to reevaluate or change anything in my life.

So, to sum up - I didn't love it. But it was ok. I should also mention (for my own sake probably more than anything else) this is the first book I have finished in the Birth Year Challenge hosted by Hotchpot Cafe. Only three weeks left - good thing I'm almost done with my second book.

Readability/accessibility - It was an easy read. Occasionally disjointed, as previously mentioned.
Aesthetics/literary merit - It had a few pretty passages, but in general, didn't work for me. 2
Plot: Pretty disjointed, drove me crazy. 1.5
Characters: Because this was a fable of sorts, they weren't really developed, but I was expecting that. 2
Personal Response: 3. Like I said, it was fine. I didn't hate it, and there were a few parts I liked.
Overall: 2


  1. What a nice (fair, balanced) review! I like to imagine that if I'd known what I was getting into when I read it I'd have been as thoughtful as you have been. :)

    I didn't even take the time to really dissect why I didn't like the book, I just know I don't like people telling me what to do, and that's what the book felt like to me.

  2. I agree with Melanie. This is a great fair review. I didn't enjoy this novel very much, for many of the reasons you described.

  3. Hmmm, sounds like the book has a split personality. That would indeed be jarring. I like a book to have continuity and consistency, because no matter how realistic it is, it's still a work of art.

    Hope the next books are more to your liking!

  4. @ Melody and Brenna - Thanks! I felt like I had to be fair because a few things were enjoyable for me, but mostly the book felt like a chore.

    @J.G. - exactly - it didn't feel like a work of art. It felt like a very strange self-help manual. The second book I read (I haven't reviewed it yet) was absolutely beautiful, so I would say in the balance so far I've found great things with this challenge.

  5. I was actually pretty surprised that I enjoyed this book. I went into it - my mother in law told me I shoudl read it, and I had nothing else with me at her house - thinking I would find it new-agey and silly, but I liked a lot of the ideas in it. Not perfect, but not bad either.


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