Paulo Coelho’s enchanting novel has inspired a devoted following around the world. This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and soul-stirring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried near the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles in his path. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.
As I first began reading The Alchemist, I found it interesting, but I was skeptical it was going to be quite as profound as I’d heard. (Michael from My Comic Relief knows he convinced me to read it, but he’s only one of many readers who have found the book life-changing!) I was a bit worried that the book makes some good points but that the story lacks subtlety–that is, the characters literally going around spouting words of wisdom and spouting what the life lessons are supposed to be. This is okay, but not quite what I was expecting, even when the cover calls the book a “fable” rather than a “novel.” The ending, however, is what really makes the book work and what really made me think, which is why I don’t believe there’s any way I can write a meaningful spoiler-free review. Read on at your own risk!
I was definitely invested in the early parts of the story, as the shepherd decides to follow a dream that told him he would find a treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt. I love a good quest story, and the obstacles that the boy encounters and the interesting people he meets will have readers thinking that his journey is a treasure in itself. Surely travelling is a good reward, even if there’s no actual gold, even if things don’t always go quite in his favor.
I even did enjoy some of the life lessons that characters came into the story in order to impart. In fact, I think I would have found all of this far more inspirational if I’d first read the book when I was younger. I don’t think I’m actually cynical now, but all the things about following your dreams and finding omens that will show you what you ought to do and persevering even when times are tough would have been newer to me as ideas and would definitely speak to a young person’s dreams and hopes for the future. I particularly like the idea that one’s Personal Legend, or what one is “supposed” to do, can be the same as one’s dream; if your dream is to be an author, that can actually be your life’s purpose (as ordained by God) rather than something that you just want. Or, finding fulfillment or happiness can help you bring good into the world; you don’t necessarily have to be some kind of suffering martyr.
However, all these directly stated life lessons pale by the ending of the book, which I did appreciate because it was more subtle and what I learned from it was not something a character made a monologue or pithy anecdote about. The climax of the book is, obviously, when the boy turns himself into the wind. This might be somewhat surprising if, as I was, you were somewhat wondering if *everything* was some type of metaphor and the treasure wasn’t real and the alchemist can’t really turn lead into gold, etc. But everything IS real, and that turns out being the beauty of the story in an unexpected way.
I loved the ending of the book (where the boy “finds” the treasure by the Pyramids by meeting someone who tells him it’s actually buried right at home where he started) because I never predicted it, and it’s absolutely hilarious, and it does indicate the journey is worth more than the treasure. And that’s definitely what I learned, not because the boy traveled and saw the world but because he turned himself into the wind and spoke to God. That moment is so wild and unbelievable that it has the magic of making the treasure seem utterly unimportant. Yes, finding the treasure was the boy’s Personal Legend, and he did get it, but Coelho manages to make readers literally not care. The boy is rich and can marry the woman he loves and is happy, but it’s all anticlimactic after the wind scene. It should be satisfying, but in many ways it’s not.
So, I don’t know if I personally came away changed from having read The Alchemist, but I enjoyed it and found it thought-provoking, and I definitely see why so many people love it. (While I can also see why some people don’t!) Either way, I’m glad I gave it a chance.