Book Review: The Alchemist

No matter what he does, every person on earth plays a central role in the history of the world. And normally he doesn’t know it.

The Alchemist, pg 163
warning: spoilers ahead. also a lot of honesty/negativity because this book was essentially garbage.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho was the first book I began and completed in 2021. And if I’m being completely honest, it was a disappointing book to start the year with.

The Alchemist is considered a cult classic and is beloved by many, which is why I picked it up. My husband read it and was planning to donate, but mentioned that it was a short book, easy read, and interesting story. All of that is true, and I managed to read the entire book within two days. However, most of the themes of this book were unsettling and, frankly, untruthful.

The general plot is that a boy named Santiago (although he is only referred to as “the boy” throughout the entire book) is happily living his life as a shepherd, able to travel the world, meet interesting people, read and trade his books, and enjoy the company of his sheep. However, he has a recurring dream, which a Gypsy interprets for him, and then meets a wise old king who tells him about signs, omens, and “Personal Legends.” Santiago decides to abandon everything to pursue the treasure that was promised him in the dream, and thus pursue his “Personal Legend.” Along the way he meets interesting people, learns to communicate with the desert, wind, sun, his own heart, and the “Soul of the Earth,” and ends up with a really cliche, your-treasure-was-there-the-whole-time conclusion.

This book is a strange conglomeration of Christian and Islamic principles, as well as pantheism, mysticism, and New Age practices. Supposedly, when you are pursuing your Personal Legend, the whole universe conspires to help you. There are Urim and Thummim stones that are supposed to help the boy make decisions (even though he only actually uses them twice) and lots of references to both God and Allah. Plenty of other spiritual-type mantras and proverbs are included, some even directly from the Bible. But it all feels strangely pieced together and forced.

“That’s why alchemy exists,” the boy said. “So that everyone will search for his treasure, find it, and then want to be better than he was in his former life. Lead will pay its role until the world has no further need for lead; and then lead will have to turn itself into gold.
“That’s what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”

pg 155

I had hoped that at least the story, the quest, would be intriguing, but it really wasn’t because it was centered around personal revelation and communicating with the “Soul of the World,” which we find out close to the end is also the “Soul of God,” which supposedly lives inside the boy and gives him the ability to perform miracles. Yech.

And to top it off, women are not portrayed in a constructive way. “Personal Legends” evidently only apply to men, and the handful of women in the story exist only to push the boy toward his or other men’s “Personal Legend.”

The message of the book if not a great one. To summarize a review of this book from a reader on Goodreads: If you don’t recognize your “Personal Legend,” you’ll be unhappy. If you don’t ever realize it, you’ll stay afraid. If you refuse to pursue it, even if you know what it is, you’ll be both unhappy and afraid. Only once you recognize, realize, and succeed will you be happy. And luckily, the universe exists to help us achieve it. *eye roll*

Sadly, I don’t have much good to say about this story. It is predictable and the writing style is almost too simple. The focus on religion, omens, and self was enough to make me scrunch up my face the entire time I was reading it. It is a mercifully short book, if you are still interested in checking it out; and the ending – though cliche – was enough to make me go, “Ok, I guess that makes sense.”

Overall, I do not recommend this book. I read several articles and many opinions on it to try to figure out why so many people enjoy it. I still don’t know, but I’m glad I can say I read it and will never read it again!

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