I'm going to come right out and say this at the very start, so as to leave no doubt in the matter: I hated this book. Hated it. It took all of my willpower to make myself finish it, to keep myself from throwing the book at the corner out of sheer frustration.
I don't know if the Paulo Coelho mania is a phenomenon outside of Honduras. If it isn't, then lucky you. But in recent years here he's become the go-to author immediately named by people who have never read more than two books in their lives when they're asked who their favorite authors are. Go to any local bookstore and you're likely to find not only shelves full of his books, but shelves devoted to books of Paulo Coelho quotes.. I picked up a copy of "The Alchemist" a couple of years ago, and couldn't make it past the first three pages of cheesy, bizarre writing, and I had given up on him until I decided to try another of his books in the spirit of the Cannonball Read. I received 'The Witch of Portobello' as a gift, and it's a good thing I can't remember who gave it to me, as I'd probably use it to hit that person on the head. Repeatedly.
The titular 'witch' is a woman named Sherine Khalil, who later dubs herself "Athena", a rather bold move that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this detestable woman. We hear her story through a series of 'interviews' someone has gathered after she has been found brutally murdered. This is pointed out in the first pages of the book, and we spend the rest of it hearing from people who met Athena and were affected by her in her personal quest for spirituality.
Sherine was born in Rumania but was adopted by a couple of rich Lebanese parents. As she grows older, Sherine, or as she decides to call herself, Athena, becomes a restless, confused woman seeking for answers and for a meaning in her life. She has a series of meaningless relationships before she meets up with her birth mother, a Rumanian gypsy, who lets her in to a world of rituals, dances, and quests to reach the spirit of the "Great Mother". You have no idea how I cringed every time I read those two words.
The plot is flimsy at best, serving only as an excuse for Coelho to expound on the virtues of some bizarre New Age/ Wiccan beliefs that only seem to turn Athena into an insufferable pedant we're supposed to believe is charming and alluring. So we're forced as readers to not only get through painfully long treatises on 'the true meaning of love' and 'reaching for your center' but to get to know a truly annoying and ridiculous main character who speaks in riddles that we're supposed to think are profound and spiritual, but only sound pretentious and ridiculous. Athena is one of the most insufferable characters I've ever read about, and the rest of the characters gravitate around her for reasons I couldn't even come close to understanding. I can only suppose that because every single supporting character is clichéd and incredibly boring, they had nothing better to do than to listen to someone as horrible as Athena as she constantly mocks them or belittles them, thinking herself somehow above the rest of the mortals. I never understood what the hell was the big deal about her, or why Coelho seems to adore her completely.
The dialogue is horrible and hokey, and I can only blame part of this on a really bad translation. "Love just is", one character says, and I could only roll my eyes at the page. And there's countless other little quips of wisdom throughout the book, and I'd quote some here but for the fact that I never want to open this book again. Trust me, it's painful.
To cap it all off, the book ends with a pathetic 'twist' that finally made me throw the book across the room. Thankfully I was finished by then.
I honestly can't begin to fathom who the intended audience for this book is. My best guess is rich bores with nothing to do but follow some ridiculous quest into paganism because they're bored with the rest of the world and need to feel closer to the rabble. Or perhaps die-hard fans of Paulo Coelho of the type I've met, who are just pretentious enough to spout off Coelho quotes like they're some sort of wisdom. I don't know. All I do for sure is that it was a torturous read, needlessly long and terribly annoying. It took me almost a whole month to get through it, and I can only look on the experience with disgust.
The only good thing I can gather from it is that at least now I know that I'll never pick up another Paulo Coelho book for as long as I live.