I was sitting in Reagan National Airport, on the phone with Brent, talking about this book. I told him that I didn't really like it. It wasn't all that bad, but it was kind of boring and simple. At that point I was a little under 100 pages into The Alchemist. I took a break from reading, got some coffee, boarded my plane, and settled into the well-worn, faux-leather seat. In no time we were in the air. I am not all that sure if the book actually got better, or if some combination of the recycled air, the perfume of the woman beside me, and the high altitude made me less discerning. But I kind of started to like it...or at least not dislike it so much.
The book follows Santiago, a shepherd boy who has a dream about treasure at the pyramids in Egypt. At the behest of a crazy gypsy woman and a king, the boy sets out on a quest for this treasure -- something Coelho refers to as the boy's "Personal Legend" (he does it just like that...capitalizing both words). It didn't take me very long to realize that this book was meant to be personally uplifting and motivating. A strong undercurrent of positive realism flows through the book. I told Brent that it was like The Secret in novelized form. (Admittedly, I have not read The Secret, but I think I have the gist of what it is all about.) The book was rife with quasi-religious statements. These sentiments fell somewhere between spirituality and religion, for example, "The camel driver understood what the boy was saying. He knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things." or "Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure." or "The world is only the visible aspect of God."
The basic storyline of the book was exceedingly simple and there wasn't much character development. As I was reading it, I couldn't help thinking of Aesop's Fables, Candide, Vision Quest... The Alchemist bears many similarities to these works. The second half of the book was appreciably better than the first, and it had a strong ending.
This is the book that put Coelho, a Brazilian novelist, on the international map. It was originally published in 1988, and was translated into English in the early 1990s, at which point it enjoyed quite a lot of buzz. President Clinton was photographed reading the book. Julia Roberts said that she absolutely loved The Alchemist. Laurence Fishburne negotiated the rights to produce a movie of Coelho's little book. But based on my personal experience, I wouldn't recommend reading this book unless you were 30,000 feet in the air.