Paulo Coelho
New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004
ISBN # 0-06-058928-0 (paper)
273 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2009

Maria, a very beautiful, young, 19 year old Brazilian woman leaves her rural village and heads to Rio de Janeiro simply to experience the larger and wider world. She had had some experiences with boys since she was a young teen and hadn’t been able to figure out how to deal with love, boys and sex. She wants to know more about life, love and how to deal with men.

While in Rio she meets a Swiss businessman who is there to sign beautiful young Brazilian women to dance at his club in Geneva. She signs a contract and decides to try this experience and to, perhaps, experience love and adventure.

In many ways the idealism of Maria reminds me of Pippa in Robert Browning’s poem/play. There a much younger little girl walks through the crime ridden neighborhoods of a small Italian town, passing incredible scenes of mayhem, but she’s fixated on the skies and God and her ideal of a good world. Browning gives her this song:

The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his Heaven -
All's right with the world!

Maria is much like Pippa with two important differences: she’s older and is consumed not with God in heaven, but with how people can be in love, and secondly, what is happening is not happing to others whom she’s watching, but is happening to herself in her own quest for love. Despite some disappointments in her early adolescent attempts at love relationships she remains convinced there is hope. Her mother is little help. She counsels her:

My dear it’s better to be unhappy with a rich man than happy with a poor man, and over there you’ll have for more chances of becoming an unhappy rich woman.

For good measure her mother adds that if finding a rich man doesn’t work out, then she can always come back home and struggle there!

Maria has strong intuitions that the only way to find true love and happiness in life in general is to take some risks and to live life in her own way

Everything tells me that I am about to make a wrong decision, but making mistakes is just part of life. What does the world want of me? Does it want me to take no risks, to go back where I came from because I didn’t have the courage to say “yes “ to life?
… I’ve realized that sometimes you get no second chance and its best to accept the gifts the world offers you. Of course it’s risky, but is the risk any greater than the chance of the bus that took forty-eight hours to bring me here having an accident? If I must be faithful to someone or something. then I must first of all, to be faithful to myself. If I’m looking for true love, I first have to get the mediocre loves out of my system. The little experience of life I’ve had has taught me that no one owns anything, that everything is an illusion — and that applies to material as well as spiritual things. Anyone who has lost something they thought was theirs forever (as has happened often enough to me already) finally comes to realize that nothing really belongs to them.
And if nothing belongs to me, then there no point wasting my time looking after things that aren’t mine; it’s best to live as if today were the first (or last) day of my life.

She seems to have a very rare intuition to take some risks in life – to do it her way. However, it is her conviction that this can only be done on a day-to-day basis, and not long term that leaves me in a very different place that Maria. Her contract’s a scam and she ends up in Geneva dancing in a small club for much less money than she had been promised. Her response: I can choose either to be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It’s all a question of how I live my life.

Later she tells us:

The roller coaster is my life. Life is a fast, dizzying game; life is a parachute jump, its taking chances, falling over and getting up again and getting up again; it’s mountaineering; it’s wanting to get to the very top yourself and to feel angry and dissatisfied when you don’t manage it.

She does have an intuition that the primary problem of the world is sex, and that sex is what gets in the way of the love relationships between lovers. Nonetheless, she takes the job in Switzerland, which doesn’t last long and shortly there after she is a sex worker, a prostitute.

The rest of the novel is a phenomenal investigation of the nature of sex as act, including not only prostitution, but sex in marriages where the sex is somehow less than love, and the nature of human personal relationships in general disappointing and enslaving.

I won’t say any more about the plot in this section since what I would say would be plot spoilers. Below however, I have a few more things to say to folks who either have already read the novel or who don’t care if some plot spoilers are revealed. Overall however, I think this is one of the best written and challenging novels about human interpersonal love relationships which I have ever read. And even beyond that theme itself, or perhaps because it deals with this theme so close to many of our daily lives, this turns out to be one of the most challenging and interesting novels I have ever read.

No one concerned with the two-person love relationship that is also sexual in nature, should miss this marvelous novel.


There are a few issues in the novel that fascinated me more than others. A couple are sort of psychological/philosophical issues and another is a literary choice of the author in building the character of Maria.

The main issue is the question of what is the aim of romantic love – to find someone you can be with and where your lives mutually enrich one another, or, as in Maria’s mind, to avoid that commitment at all costs since you are likely to have it lead to one or the other corrupting the other. She says:

Yes, I love you very much as I have never loved another man and that is precisely why I’m leaving, because if I stayed, the dream would become reality, the desire to possess, to want your life to be mine… in short, all the things that transform love into slavery. It’s best left like this – a dream. We have to be careful what we take from a country or from life.

And thus she gives up her love for Ralf, and takes herself away from him as well, thus depriving both of them of the hope and possibility of a successful love relationship, and she does this in order to be sure it doesn’t go bad. I certainly understand the difficulties Maria speaks of. However, it seems to me an excessive protective device, giving up an extremely desirable state of being in order to be sure one doesn’t damage that very state.

In many ways it is understandable that Maria might hold that view given that she experienced the radical difference between sex in love and sex as work, two extraordinarily different ways of relating to sex.

Maria’s character is in general a bit of a puzzle for me. As I indicated in the earlier section at the top, she seems a sort of utopian little girl, reminding me of Pippa in Browning’s poem. However, as time goes on her views of human relationship seem very mixed, with some nearly utopian ideas which lead to the dilemma I allude two a few paragraphs above, and at others times she reasons like a harden woman, one who has had the very experiences which she has indeed had.

I keep trying to get myself into the head of author Coelho to try to get exactly what he has in mind when he creates the character of Maria. I think I just can’t quite get it straight.

Ralf himself is quite utopian, even Spartan in his assessment of life’s meaning:

You only know yourself when you go beyond your limits.

And in another place:

… what makes the world go round is not the search for pleasure, but the renunciation of all that is important.

That seems such a stern view, again, one that is so protective of something going wrong that it excludes one from the hope and even likelihood, that often it will go well instead of leading to some disaster in relationship.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu