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Esquire
Wednesday, June 20th, 2007
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The Witch of Portobello

by Paulo Coelho

Black Magic Woman

A review by John Burgman

When you pick up a Paulo Coelho book, you know what to expect: Someone's life will be lacking. Religious undertones will be prevalent. Destinies will be sought. Someone will probably die.

In fact, someone is already dead when Coelho's newest book, The Witch of Portobello, opens. Athena, the ultra-spiritual daughter of a Gypsy woman, is being remembered by those who knew her best -- a numerologist, an ex-husband, a landlord obsessed with fanatical trance dancing. We learn that Athena harnessed a divine capability for clairvoyance. We learn that she was a supernatural psychotherapist, giving advice on love and the universe. And we also learn why not every Coelho book is a winner.

The problem isn't so much in the writing, but the spirituality. A small dose here and there is uplifting. And when Coelho's on and the mysticism is tempered with great writing and characters, what you get are books that read quickly and make better conversation starters than your average check-out line paperback. But when he's off -- when his books, like this one, are overloaded with platitudes about love and inner truth -- it can be a bit suffocating. Imagine being trapped in a hot room with Buddhist yogis from San Diego for two days. Yeah, that may be helpful or uplifting to the most cosmically flexible among us. But for the rest, it's hard to be at one with the cosmos when the vibes are making us all a little nauseous.


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