A few years ago I made a list of authors that I thought I should read...mostly male writers, because I found that I was reading almost exclusively female writers, and authors of literary fiction, because I found I was reading quite a bit of women's and other genre fiction. At the time, The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho was all over the blogosphere, so I added that to my list. I still haven't gotten around to The Alchemist, but I found one of his other books, Eleven Minutes, in a take-one-leave-one library. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't the treatise on the sacred nature of sex that I ended up getting.
Eleven Minutes chronicles the story of Maria, a young Brazilian woman who spends a year of her life working as a prostitute in Geneva, Switzerland. During her time there, she spends lots of time reflecting on the nature of love and sex and the intersection of the two, as well as how pain and suffering play into the whole equation. The stakes are high-the path she chooses, between empty sexual pleasure or the possibility of love, will ultimately determine the fate of her soul.
Turns out the book is based, in part, on the true story of an acutal Brazilian prostitute, which helped me understand where on earth he got the idea. And he's certainly not the first author to examine the nature of sex and sexuality. But the subject doesn't feel old in Coelho's hands. Maria is a woman who feels trapped by her background, and by the prospects for her future. Her thoughts on love are remarkably cynical for her age, deciding early that love is pain, and that in order to secure a comfortable future she needed to manipulate the feelings of others. And when it comes to men, the best way to do that is with sex. But in the end, what she finds is that sex without love is incredibly lonely, and that ultimately the only way to be truly free is to surrender yourself to love.
There are some graphic descriptions of sex in the book, though it never felt gratuitous to me. I did feel as though the prose was occasionally overworked, but there were some really great quotes about life and love scattered throughout. Ultimately, Maria, and therefore the reader, are drawn to the conclusion that sex is more than the eleven minutes of physical pleasure that might occur, but the merging of two souls in a sacred embrace. Not a bad lesson to be learned.