The theme of adultery has given rise to wonderful works of literature: from Flaubert to Goethe, Pushkin to Tolstoy, DH Lawrence to Noël Coward, F Scott Fitzgerald to Raymond Carver, onwards through the contemporary lens of Patrick Marber, Tessa Hadley and Anne Tyler. It has triggered, too, memorable scenes in film, ballet, and opera and inspired great paintings.
A topic potentially profound and complex, then, a minefield of morality and the manifold nature of love: how does Brazilian author Paulo Coelho approach it?
Rather disingenuously, carelessly even, in this reviewer’s opinion. His thin portrayal of adultery with paper-cut-out characters, his shallow handling of depression, lacks the cohesion of a whole. The religious heft intimated by biblical opening quotes fails to materialise, the sex is aggressive and gratuitous, the language flat or clichéd.
While the better-written and more authentic-feeling final 30 pages offer the basis of a novella of sincere intent, they are adrift from the rest. The beauty of St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians no more earns its place than does a (skewed) retelling of the famous ghost-story competition of Byron and the Shelleys in Villa Diodati by Geneva, the city setting for Coelho’s novel.
Linda is a successful journalist married to a wealthy businessman who loves her. They have children. Life is sweet, but she is depressed. An interview, turned sexual encounter, with a teenage sweetheart galvanises her into a re-examination of her life and world-view. For a time she imagines herself in love and thinks his wife “precisely the kind of woman I would like to destroy pitilessly”. They meet for (rough) sex. Revisiting their honeymoon location in the Swiss mountains, husband and wife go paragliding, and she has a revelation.
This reader would be open to a moment of seeing the divine in Nature, of being reminded we are small beings part of a larger mysterious entity: “And the eagle tells me: ‘Come. You are heaven and earth, the wind and the clouds, the snow and the lakes.’” But, at odds with the words and actions gone before, the resolution is too glib, verging on the patronising.
At his best, Coelho obviously strikes a chord with his worldwide readership, The Alchemist regarded as a “life-enhancing” work containing genuine wisdom by many. Not wishing to belittle his previous achievements, an honest reading of his latest does, however, leave a strange aftertaste of falseness and a rushed job.
In an interview, Coelho said he knows it is time to write a new book when he happens upon another white feather. May the next white feather return him to a work of sincerity and the genuine insightfulness one searches for in vain in Adultery.
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