The Witch of Portobello tells the story of Athena by people who knew or did not know anything. Among them, her adoptive mother, a journalist, a priestess, a historian, and an actress. Each person illustrates a different aspect of Athena’s character, describing what they saw and experienced and also share their impressions, beliefs, and concerns.
Half of my literary friends hate Coelho, but I could care less. I like Coelho’s work because it has made a positive impact on my life. I like him because he pushes people’s religious, metaphysical, and spiritual buttons with his books. The Witch of Portobello is one example of this. The only thing I didn’t like about the book was the ending, which left me wanting to know more about what happened afterward. But, maybe, that’s how Coelho wanted it. Some find this book boring; some find it disrespectful. I found it fascinating, so deal with it.
I saw many women in my life in Athena (the protagonist), including myself. One person commented on Goodreads.com that: “She is the woman who is everything every one of us wants to be“. Ain’t that the truth. Through Athena, Coelho tells us that human nature is limitless and is as complicated as you can imagine. You get to know about her from the perspective of those that thought they “knew” her. Also, I love that her name was that of the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill. Yet, like the goddess herself, women like Athena are not that easy to describe. Here is a woman with a tragic past, trying to fit in a world that doesn’t understand her and yet, judges her harshly because of who she is and where she comes from. Athena wants to have a life of meaning and excel as best she can, but like most of us, she tries to be meaningful through the standards and expectations of society, then through the ideals or assumptions of those around her. Finally, she lives through her expectations. In some parts of the book, you’d say Athena succeeded and in others that she failed. The truth is that Athena is a woman of pure and unfiltered intuition. She does not think things through, she only feels them and acts upon them, no matter the cost, no matter the danger and no matter the sacrifice. When you live like this, you cannot expect for things to be black and white; because things are never just those two colors.
The only constant theme in her story is spirituality, but (like always) Coelho presents this most unconventionally. Now, many people are skeptics (I consider myself one from time to time); but what I love about this book is that it shows you that we (as humans) have been living in cynicism for centuries and it has gotten us nowhere. Women, like Athena, who lived by their own rules were always called witches. The woman was always required to think about the welfare of others before thinking about hers. Therefore, if a woman dares to think of herself first before others, she is being selfish and vain. And if she succeeded in this endeavor, then she must be a witch because (according to common thought) such action is impossible; especially by a woman. This is another topic that Coelho touches on in the book through Athena. And, in a society that continues to diminish and doubt the power of a woman, being such a is considered an evil being by some, a saint by others, a blessing by a few and a mystery by the rest.
I love The Witch of Portobello because it depicted a woman in all her authority, all her glory, and all her doom. It showed that you can never measure yourself through the eyes of others. Now, come to think about it, we constantly do this to women and men of such nature: we judge them based on the impact they left on our lives. So, it is safe to say, that this book is more a critique of our own societal character through the eccentricities of an unlikely mirror (called Athena), than the mischief doings and tragic happenings made by one person.
Sypnopsis taken from Goodreads.com