|About the Book|
I always wished that Paulo Coehlo was my uncle so that I could call him ‘Papa Coelho’ and sit at his knee while he smoked his pipe. I think that he would be delightfully eccentric, and given to saying things like ‘Suffering, if confronted without fear, is the great passport to freedom.’ So, true, Papa Coelho. So true.If he was my uncle, though, I might not tell him that I thought The Alchemist was tripe, and that most of his books carry too much philosophizing and not enough narrative. But in The Witch of Portobello, he achieves what others have tried so hard to do and failed so miserably at (I’m looking at you, Marilynne Robinson). There was such a fine balance between story and lesson that I was never bored by the one nor overwhelmed by the other.The narrator of the story tells us right off that he’s not going to try to write a straight-up biography, but that in the interests of objectivity (of a sort), he’s just going to put down verbatim the interviews he conducted on the subject of the alleged ‘witch.’ From the journalist who fell in love with her to the woman who felt betrayed by her, from birth mother to adoptive mother, from teacher to student, are all given a chance to tell how Athena, born Sherine and sometimes called Hagia Sofia, messed them over. Each one recounts how she waltzed into their lives with that restless spirit and those grey eyes, and began throwing around the carefully-arranged furniture (metaphorically speaking). And then she died.Even though I kind of rolled my eyes for the first few pages and though, ‘Damn, another one of these,’ and even though nothing really happened in the way of a plot (Athena travelled here, learned this lesson in this way, travelled there, learned that lesson), I found myself sucked in. I would be on the Stairmaster, book in hand, and look down to realize that I’d climbed twenty floors without noticing. There was something strangely compelling about Athena, and being told her story from everyone’s perspective but hers made her into this mysterious goddess figure, a myth that she simultaneously upheld and debunked at every turn.I’m usually very much not in to books that try to refine my soul (it has been suggested that this is because I lack said soul), particularly because the message usually gets in the way of the medium. But somehow with this book I found myself yelling, ‘Yes! Yes! I will dance against the rhythm, dammit!’ and casting off the shackles of this dark world (ok, really I just tapped my finger against my lip, murmured, ‘Interesting,’ and promised myself I’d think more deeply about it later, but you get the gist).In short, though the dialogue stumbled at times and each of the narrators spoke with pretty much the same voice, this book was a pleasure to read…which means I didn’t suffer…which means I don’t have my passport to freedom! Oh, Papa Coelho, if only you were here now. I’m so confused.