Past Perfect Review: The Alchemist

Classic novel by Paulo Coelho
Review by Kristin D. Urban-Watson
Issue No. 8 – June 2015

Written like a fable, The Alchemist is a jewel of storytelling. The accomplished Brazilian author Paulo Coelho penned this magical masterpiece in 1988. It wasn’t until Bill Clinton was photographed carrying the book that The Alchemist began to achieve its well-deserved popular reputation. Today, The Alchemist has sold 150 million copies worldwide, and has been translated into 80 languages, and at the time this review was written, and twenty-seven years after it was first published, it was number two on the New York Time’s Paperback Trade Fiction list.

The Alchemist follows the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy. Santiago has a recurring dream of a treasure, located at the Egyptian pyramids. As he so eloquently puts it, “it’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” After consulting a gypsy and an old king, Santiago decides to sell his sheep, leave his life as a shepherd, and begin his quest for treasure. He travels from Spain to Egypt, although not quite as directly and swiftly as he was anticipating. Along the way, Santiago meets a crystal merchant, an Englishman, and eventually an alchemist. It is through the important relationship with the alchemist that Santiago realizes “that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.”

The book resonates strongly because of its idea of the “Personal Legend.” The old king explains to Santiago that the Personal Legend is “what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.” Coelho causes the reader to reflect upon their own Personal Legend, and whether they, like Santiago, need to go on a quest to recover it. Coelho is such a gifted writer that he shapes Santiago’s character in such a way as to allow the reader to imagine that she is walking alongside him, on his journey of fulfillment. When Santiago recognizes omens, so does the reader; when he contemplates love and his destiny, the reader does likewise. While The Alchemist is an adventure story, it is also an extraordinary novel of self-discovery.

The topic of finding one’s own path was not a new one for Coelho, as similar themes can be found in his book The Pilgrimage (1987). Here, Coelho also explores self-realization and discovery. In fact, this book has even been considered a sort of companion book to The Alchemist. Yet because of its heart and adventurous narrative, The Alchemist remains the most beloved book of all of Coelho’s novels.

Simple as a fairytale, The Alchemist is a cup of wisdom from which readers will gladly drink for eternity. Through his simple storytelling techniques, Coelho manages to bring the reader into the story, and the beautiful imagery he paints further transports the reader into the North African terrain alongside Santiago. Nearly three decades out from when it first hit bookshelves, the old king’s proclamation that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” still rings strongly within readers.

The Alchemist (25th Anniversary Edition)
Paulo Coelho
Harper One
208 pages, $17.14

Kristin D. Urban-Watson is a writer, art teacher, book reviewer, and yoga enthusiast. She enjoys good books, nature walks, and spending time with her black lab.

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