My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a short and simple book. Its premise can be summed up as “follow your dreams and all will work out.” It’s about a shepherd boy from Andalusia in southern Spain who yearns to travel. He sells his flock and sets out to do just that. Over the course of the book, he crosses North Africa from Gibraltar to the pyramids of Egypt and back. Along the way he faces many setbacks and barriers, but his willingness to adopt a positive attitude and roll up his sleeves and get to work allows him to overcome these obstacles. As he travels, mysterious guides and mentors–most notably the title-roled Alchemist–show up along the way to induce him to keep going rather than giving up.
As with The Coroner’s Lunch, which I reviewed a couple of reviews back, there’s a supernatural component to this book that seems superfluous. First, the supernatural element doesn’t add much to the story. Second, to my mind, if you are trying to sell the notion that you can make your dreams come true (in this self-helpy sort of way), having your character live in a world of magic detracts from that message. The take away for the reader may be, “Sure, the shepherd boy could do it, he lives in a world in which people can turn lead into gold. In my world, bound by laws of thermodynamics and whatnot, things are not so simple.”
You will note that my middling rating is anomalous. Having skimmed through reviews of this book, I found they were overwhelmingly divided between 5 star and 1 star reviews. It’s rare for one to see the same book being cast both in the best and worst book role by various readers. However, that seems to be the case for this book. Some people adore this book and consider it life-changing. Others think it’s oversimplified tripe for granola-munching potheads and/or six-year olds. I suspect that Coelho is quite pleased. I know—as a writer—if you can’t get someone to love your book, you want them to despise it. Mediocrity doesn’t put one in good stead for building readership. Hate is a passionate response; it means the book struck some kind of chord. Clunkers are remembered just like perfect melodies; it’s the so-so performances that vanish into the background—or the bargain bin.
Unlike the lovers and haters, I found this book to be just alright. It presents some good ideas, but not novel ideas, and it does so in a clear but not brilliant way. It wouldn’t hurt to read it as it’s very short and highly readable.