Friday, November 21, 2014

Review of Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho and Thoughts on Bookclubbery

I liked Veronika Decides to Die, but I would have liked it even more if I had read it when I was 20 and playing around with my own vision of “the good life.” The plot involves a young woman in Slovenia in the 1990s that is fed up with her mundane existence and tries to commit suicide unsuccessfully. She wakes up in a mental hospital and is told that she experienced complications from her drug overdose and will die in five days. What follows is an exploration of how she and several other patients in the hospital think about what kind of decisions to make in the face of having only a few days to live.

Books that are driven by a Big Idea rather than by its characters do not tend to be my favorites, because it often seems as if the characters are being “used” by the author rather than being allowed to develop on their own. That did happen in this case – Coelho wants to propose a philosophy of authentic living here, and the characters and plot are created to promote this philosophy. But, still, this book is compelling in its earnestness, and I was rooting for the characters to be able to experience freedom on their own terms.

Coelho’s philosophy has two parts. First, he believes that Western society has sanity and insanity flipped. We call “normal” those who conform to a routine, boxed-in life. We call “crazy” those people who deviate from social expectations or who freely express their passion – artists, creators, dreamers.

Second, living a “normal” life builds up boredom and resentment and bitterness. Once these negative feelings overcome a person, the will to live well – or live freely – subsides. Coelho seems to be asking how people can break the shackles of this “normalcy.”

The twenty-year-old me would have enjoyed discussing these ideas in the dorm commons at one in the morning. But, as it turns out, the older me really enjoyed talking about this book at my book club this week (not at one in the morning).

In fact, Veronika Decides to Die generated one of the longest discussions about a book our group has ever had (as opposed to discussions about families or food or politics or whatever). That got me thinking about what kinds of books are best for book club discussions. Here’s what I have come up with so far:

1)   The book has to have some sort of larger theme or idea it’s exploring. The fact that Veronika Decides to Die is idea-driven actually worked to our advantage here. Our group talked about the concept of sanity. We talked about mental health. We talked about the “right to die.” People brought up their own experiences and decisions. While some character-driven books allow us to play with the text (Did you like the ending? Did the character make realistic choices?), they don’t pull us up and out toward the real world. So, oddly, the books that I tend to enjoy the most don’t necessarily spark the best discussions.

2)   The book needs to be short enough for people to finish. If people are not done with the book, it’s hard to talk about the resolution.  Veronika Decides to Die is 210 pages, and everyone at the table completed it. It would have been difficult to discuss Coelho’s philosophy without knowing what happens to Veronika at the end.

3)   It’s great if the book spurs a question for which there’s no clear answer. In this case, we wondered why Veronika Decides to Die is set in Slovenia. Is there something about that place and that time (late 1990s) that made talking about authentic living important? We puzzled through what freedom might have meant in that part of the world during and after the Bosnian War, and we considered the fact that Slovenia was a brand new republic. We are still puzzling.

I trolled around the interwebs looking for insight on good ideas for choosing books for discussions. Here’s a link to librarian Nancy Pearl’s ideas about the topic. She also makes a list of novels she thinks could propel a lively conversation:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski
The Plague of Doves and The Round House by Louise Erdrich
In the Woods by Tana French
A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Sparrow and A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Among Others by Jo Walton
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

So what do YOU think? Do you agree with Nancy Pearl? Do you have books to add? And what about nonfiction? Please weigh in. Hint: leave a comment.

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