240 Minutes with Paulo Coehlo’s “Eleven Minutes”

I’ve struggled with how to write about this book. As I mentioned in a prior post, this was a “new to me” author, and I ignored the advice of the person recommending him to me by choosing this book instead of The Alchemist. One of the reasons I chose this one was it’s brevity – only 215 pages in my edition – and frankly the subject matter seemed to be more likely to “grab me.” Its the story of a simple girl, Maria – from the Interior of Brasil (I’ll spell it the way she, being a native, prefers) – and her journey of discovery. Discovery of herself and of the very nature of love. How’s that for a tall order!? This book is a quick read (it took me just about four hours – 240 minutes 🙂 ) but is NOT for young readers due to it’s graphic descriptions of “sexual activity”…

Maria’s early encounters with love do not end well, and each one teaches her another “lesson” about love, which she accumulates as her young life progresses. After one early experience, she memorably says that she “began to associate love not with someone’s presence, but with their absence.” Of course I don’t mean by this that she loved it when they weren’t around, but rather how she felt when they were absent was what could tell her if she was in love or not.

A remarkable thing about this book (well, I’ve noticed this in many other books, but it always amazes me that writers can pull it off) was that, though it was written from a young woman’s point of view, it was a man who did the writing. This might be even more remarkable in this case since much of the action is of a very sexual nature. ****Minor Spoiler Alert**** The protagonist visits Rio de Janeiro on a holiday, and ends up signing on with a man from Switzerland who needs ‘dancers’ for his club back in Geneva. Maria is still rather naive and goes off with the smooth talker and works in his club for awhile, but is dismissed for a trivial reason. Although she gets a nice “severance” check she realizes she will need money and eventually turns to prostitution, which gives her a crash course about the ways of life and love and SEX of course. Throughout all of this her dream remains to make enough money to return to Brasil and buy a farm for her parents.

Maria is a beautiful girl and has no shortage of customers, or of those who want to marry her and “take her away from this life.” All this time she is still trying to determine the true nature of love and throughout the book continues to come to conclusions that determine her future behavior. Sometimes these conclusions are overruled by subsequent discoveries and sometimes they are amended, but in the course of just about a couple years, she has become a very wise young woman indeed.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the occasional sprinklings of excerpts from Maria’s diary and the end of chapters (actually, I don’t think there really are distinct chapters in this book). These excerpts give the reader insight into what she was “really thinking” during her encounters and frequently left me wondering about what an advantage it would be in romantic encounters if one or both knew what the other really wanted or really thought. My recent “Deal me in!” reading project has gotten me thinking in terms of poker and – in a way – romantic encounters are somewhat like that game: how we can’t always see what cards the other person is holding, and if we did we might play our hands differently. Or how, sometimes we think we have deduced what the other is holding and act accordingly, but we may be totally wrong. AND we sometimes may play our hands a certain way, based on an erroneous assumption and yet have things work out anyway. Maybe this means that one could view love as a big gamble? This feels about right to me. 🙂 (sorry, end of digression)

After awhile, i feared Maria had become over-analytical of everything and was threatening to make the book become tiresome. Thankfully this doesn’t quite happen, and eventually Maria meets a couple men of a different type (“special customers” as her manager describes them) that lead her to even more discoveries and a choice between paths she might take as she prepares to return to Brasil. I won’t spoil it further for you by saying how things end up; you should read the book for yourself.

One final thought and then I’ll let you go: as I mentioned in an earlier post, I took a break in my reading of John Irving’s book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, to read this book, and when I returned to Irving today I was struck by a similarity. Both books are about characters who are on a voyage of discovery in learning the ways of life, but Maria really had only herself and her feelings to guide her while Owen Meany and Johnny Wheelwright had each other as they tentatively took their steps toward growing up. Both journeys are intriguing and remarkable, but Maria had to “go it alone” and for that reason, my hat is off to her.

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