Saturday, February 14, 2009

the witch of portobello by paulo coelho

how do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves -- even if we are unsure of who we are?

that is the central question of international bestselling author Paulo Coehlo's profound new work, the witch of portobello. it is the story of a mysterious woman named Athena, told by the many who knew her well -- or hardly at all. like the alchemist, the witch of portobello is the kind of story that will transform the way readers think about love, passion, joy, and sacrifice.

okay, your flap copy offered me a lot. i realize that perhaps you didn't write it, but i still hold you responsible for fulfilling all its promises. (or should i direct this to your english translator, margaret jull costa?)  the truth is, based on this copy, i had no idea what your story was actually about. so here i am, forced to admit that this is one of those books where interest was based solely on attraction. i'm sorry, but it's true. i saw this cover and had to pick it up. and every time i saw the book i had to pick it up. i even took the time to add it to an online wishlist. i meant to move it off the list because as i said, i had no idea what the witch of portobello was about. which means, it really didn't matter if i ever read it.

yet the model on the cover is stunning. and so is her hair. secretly, i want this hair. and so while yours is more the sort of book i would take out of the library, the image was arresting enough every time i saw it that it was never moved off my wishlist. then it was given to me as a holiday gift, so here we are. discussing it. because now i know what your novel is about.

this isn't a terrible story, but i didn't fall into. i love those books that suck me and don't spit me out until the last page. your novel didn't do that. your writing is strong and the use of language is captivating (at least we know the translator did you justice). but if a story doesn't have a interesting plot or characters, then it's kind of a done deal for me.

athena is a fascinating character, and i should say that i think you have done something truly original here. i thought it was brilliant to reveal the main character to the reader through the others in that character's life. you developed a great supporting cast and they all have such distinct voices. each time a new character began his/her story of athena, i knew immediately who it was. i also really enjoyed that you used your cast of characters to tell stories more than once. i felt like i got to know each character more intimately. however, the are two seemingly important characters who are never given a voice. athena's son, viorel, and her unnamed suitor. viorel felt more like a prop than a character and her suitor appears at the start of the story and then disappears until the end. he swoops back in to tie up everything all nice for the reader. i resent him for this. and i think i resent you for this as well. both he and viorel could have provided great insight into athena, in a way the other characters could not. but alas, you do not allow the reader to hear the two most important voices in athena's life. and i have to wonder why. 

as for your overall story itself -- it is a whimsy and fleeting. i wanted more out of the plot, or maybe i just didn't believe it because, despite knowing all these other characters so well, athena was a bit of a mystery to me. she's an enigma and try as they might, the supporting cast can't make me feel connected to athena. over the course of the story, you hold her at a distance from me. i didn't like that. and by the end, i didn't feel i knew her that well. i knew her parents, bosses, landlords, various lovers, etc. quite well. but not athena.

unless that was your point?

however, the way i think about love, passion, joy, and sacrifice wasn't transformed. but i don't regret owning your book because i didn't buy it and it has a pretty cover. sadly though, i will probably never recommend it to anyone.

dutifully yours,
a lone reader

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