Sunday, January 04, 2015

Adultery - a disappointing read

book review

Book: Adultery
Author: Paulo Coelho

Reading the translation of a novel doesn't quite feel the same as reading the tome in its original language, if only because it's hard to shake off the concern that some of the author's voice might have been lost in translation. In the case of Paulo Coelho's new novel Adultery, which was originally written in the author's native Portuguese, one can only hope that this really is what happened.

The story revolves around Linda, a 30-something wife of one of the richest men in Switzerland. Her main problem, it seems, is that she doesn't have any problems. She is the mother of two children, works as a journalist, and is such an epitome of awesomeness that she "arouse(s) desire in men and envy in women". Her husband adores her and she is practically living the ideal life.

But she still hates pretty much every aspect of her existence and finds herself struggling with boredom due to a "lack of passion and adventure".

To eliminate the predictability of her comfortable routine, Linda decides to replace her "missing joy with something more concrete a man". A man who isn't her beloved husband, of course. The object of her desire is a former high school boyfriend Jacob, now a prominent politician running for office.

Their paths cross when she has to interview him for the newspaper. Nostalgia hits, lust takes hold, and Linda sets out on a road that might have life-altering consequences.

You might think it's these consequences that frame the narrative, but the book never delivers the kind of repercussions that would seem realistic or create the necessary tension to keep the story interesting. Nor does it explain why the reader is supposed to give a hoot about its central character, a woman who comes off as repulsively self-absorbed and shallow.

Linda's introspection and soul-searching read more like narcissistic ramblings as she tries to justify her actions, meandering through the topics of love, depression, joy, self-fulfillment and life in Geneva, while making contrived references to (better) works of literature.

Perhaps Linda's actions and choices would have made more sense if we were given a chance to get acquainted with some of the people around her, but that doesn't really happen. We find out the bare minimum about her (seemingly passive and unbelievably understanding) husband, and next to nothing about her children. The only supporting character who is fleshed out is Jacob, the man Linda obsessively pursues, but he comes off even worse than she does. A womaniser who has apparently had a string of affairs despite being married to the "complete woman" (who Linda wants to "destroy pitilessly"), he just seems like a person who doesn't have a meaningful connection with anyone.

Why is Linda attracted to Jacob? What exactly is she feeling? And what is she actually going through? She herself isn't sure, and keeps questioning her own thoughts, troubles, and motives for the entirety of the novel. Meanwhile, there isn't enough character development or even a strong, convincing arc that would make her a compel-ling individual. For most of the novel, as the events limply unfold, the protagonist doesn't seem to come out any wiser, and neither does the reader. When her eventual moment of epiphany does arrive, it feels tedious and hackneyed.

As with every Paulo Coelho novel, Adultery tries to dispense some wisdom, although it's often hard to tell what these lessons really are. Perhaps it is precisely because this novel was written by such a celebrated author who generates higher expectations that the result is so underwhelming. Beloved to a global fan base that venerates him for stories laced with optimism and insight, Coelho is not only the best selling Portuguese language author of all time but also one of the most successful writers in the world. The Brazilian author's 1988 allegorical novel The Alchemist is a phenomenon, a magical fable that blends spirituality and philosophy to inspire its readers. That spark, sadly, is missing in Adultery.

Sure there are moments that do resonate, such as the sentiment that people can be "afraid of things changing, but at the same time dying to experience something different," and of course the overall themes of searching for meaning, love, and happiness are unlikely to be foreign to anyone reading this book. But we don't get a meaningful discourse on any of these topics and are instead left with a superficial take on love and depression by way of a protagonist that is a walking cliché.

It also doesn't help that a couple of times the book turns into "50 Shades of Adultery", taking unnecessarily descriptive and gratuitously graphic interludes; the effect is jarring and does not go well with the author's overall style.

Adultery never quite succeeds in making a connection or generating empathy, and ultimately leaves us with more questions than answers. The book is a fairly quick read and its plain prose, slight plot, and trite characters offer only a few moments of inspiration towards the end which do not make up for the dull journey that gets us there.

The novel's central themes have been tackled much more interestingly in various other works, and we would certainly have expected someone of Paulo Coelho's calibre to present a more original and affecting take on these subjects.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 4th January, 2015 *

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