A touching, if overexplicit, fable about learning to live in the face of death.
As he confides in an early chapter, Coelho himself (The Fifth Mountain, 1998, etc.) was apparently institutionalized simply because his adolescent behavior baffled his parents. Here, he returns to the world of mental hospitals indirectly via Veronika, a Ljubljana librarian who—tired of the fact that, at 24, she already finds every day like every other and can’t imagine any future but increasing boredom, decay, and death—takes an overdose of sleeping pills. She awakens in Villette, Slovenia’s notorious lunatic asylum, to learn that she’s damaged her heart irreparably and has only a week to live. Initially rebelling against her keepers’ solicitous rules and regulations (``I'm not here to preserve my life, but to lose it,” she reminds a nurse), she finds first her curiosity and then, gradually, her passions aroused by her fellow patients. Serbian Zedka Mendel, lacking a necessary brain chemical, endures megadoses of insulin that send her into comas. Mari, a lawyer who committed herself because she was suffering from panic attacks, has been asymptomatic for years but, divorced and forced into retirement, has nothing left to return to. Eduard, a “schizophrenic” whose case seems most like Coelho’s, is an ambassador’s son who ended up in Villette after rejecting a diplomatic career to paint. Regrettably, however, Coelho, preaching the need to live your own life in the face of death and social regimentation, can’t resist capping these often poignant stories with sanity-is-the-true-madness insights out of R.D. Laing and prosy homiletics (“It’s what you are, not what others make of you”) that seem to have been cribbed from a high-school health textbook.
Imagine peering into the very heart of the mystical rose in Dante’s Paradise and finding the neon injunction: “TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.”