Top critical review
Some great messages about living life more fully, but also trivializing some mental health issues
Reviewed in the United States on April 2, 2019
I like that all of Paulo Coehlo’s stories are journeys that are about mysticism and the journey of life. And, Veronika Decides To Die does not disappoint on this theme. There are some great points in this story that make you think about life and whether you are living it in a way that is really being true to who you are. In that regard, it’s a great book. And worth reading.
Veronika is a pretty young woman who has made safe choices in life and leads a very ho-hum existence. It’s too much and she decides to commit suicide. I struggled with this being her reason, as in real life, many suicide attempts are by people who are deeply depressed or suffering from tragedy or deep pain. But, back to the story, when she overdoses she is shocked to wake up in a mental hospital. She is given the diagnosis that the overdose severely damaged her heart and she only has a short time to live. At first, this makes her just want to get it over with, and she wants to try again to kill herself and tries to make some connections in the mental hospital to do that. But as she meets others in there, she begins to find out that numerous people there are not crazy, and not mentally disabled, they are people who were just simply not normal. They didn’t fit into society. And the question is posed, what is crazy? And the point is brought up, weren’t people like Einstein and Beethoven and others like them just as crazy, since they heard of imagined things no else could? And, as we find out, there are numerous people in the mental institute who were committed by family for this reason, they were misunderstood, didn’t fit in, and in cases like Mari she had panic attacks. And Eduard the schizophrenic, turns out, his parents thought he was crazy and had him admitted, and he has chosen to accept this title to escape his parents not allowing him to live the life he wanted of being an artist.
The doctor in charge of the patients, Dr. Igor, a clever name certainly hinting at Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, who is somewhat mad himself, has strange theories that insanity is actually primarily caused by vitriol in people’s lives. He is constantly working on this thesis for the paper that will one day change the way people look at insanity.
Veronika, getting to know these other inmates, and realizing she has little time left, listens to the advice of some of the brilliant inmates there who are in fact not crazy, but choose to continue living there because it is a place they feel comfortable and are free to be who they really are. So Veronika begins to loosen up, speak up, say things to others she normally wouldn’t say. She allows herself to step out of acting normal, and finds that life is better acting a little crazier. She can’t sleep at night and she goes plays the piano. And it turns out, this new freedom allows her to express the real piano virtuoso that has been hidden all these years and it turns out she is a real artist at heart. But, how sad to have found out so late in the game. But, she realizes she will make the best of the time she has. And she starts really living life with appreciation. And her piano playing begins to affect Eduard, bringing him out his shell, and they make a deep connection, helping each other.
There are so many things about this story that have a great message about how playing it safe, and acting normal can in fact be one of the worst things a person can do. That being “normal” and trying to just fit in, is bondage. And Veronika realizes that she probably would never have tried to end her life, and would have been happier if she had allowed herself to act a little crazier.
But, I struggled with the mixed messages in the story that somewhat trivializes some mental health issues and suicide, all of which are tragic and sad and very real issues in the world. And not all people who need help for mental health issues are actually brilliant and perfectly normal, but are merely misunderstood. In the book Paulo Coehlo even has some of the patients really enjoy things like Insulin Shock therapy. Zedka looks forward to it, and when she gets it it actually allows her to astral project and her spirit soar all over, going on wonderful journeys. And Eduard really likes his electrical shock treatments.
This is why I struggled with my feelings on the book. He took a subject, someone despairing enough about their life to want to end it, and shows us how learning to really express who you are can make you happier in life. That’s a great message. But, in the case of Veronika, it is all under the pretext that many of the lessons she learns are from secretly brilliant people who prefer to live in an insane asylum where they feel more comfortable fitting in, and where they use things like Insulin Shock Therapy to astral project, etc. And, spoiler alert, don’t read on if you don’t want to know the ending. You find out that Dr. Igor made up the diagnosis that Veronika had a bad heart because he theorized that telling her she had a short time to live would inspire her to embrace life. And he was right.
At the end of the book Paulo Coehlo gives background information on the book, that in fact, he based the idea for it in part on the real life experience, that he, like the character Eduard, wanted to be an artist, and his parents were upset about it and ultimately had him put in a insane asylum. It was enlightening to realize he was inspired based on some of his own experiences. But, again, it seemed like he trivialized the fact that suicide and depression and mental health disorders can be and are debilitating illnesses and that many health professionals are not crackpots like Dr. Igor, but actually use all kinds of medications and even behavior modification therapy to get people back to living healthier lives.