It wasn’t until after I was part of the way through Veronika Decides to Die and planned to review it for my blog that I realized it was also on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. I had switched to writing brief reviews for those books but am going to go back to doing full reviews for some of them (when I feel like it and have the time or just don’t realize it before I make the selection). As with Paulo Coelho’s famous The Alchemist, the tale of Veronika and her time in Villete is short but manages to say a lot.
Veronika lives in Slovenia during the 1990s in the wake of the war that divided Yugoslavia. She is young, just twenty-four, but she has come to the conclusion that there is little left in life worth seeing. Everything and every day is the same as it was yesterday and as it will be tomorrow and so she has decided to commit suicide. Swallowing a large quantity of sleeping pills, she is ready for oblivion but wakes up in a mental institution having been found before the pills could finish their work. But the doctors inform her that irreparable damage was done to her heart during her attempt and she only has about a week before her heart will give out and she will die. With both her and her fellow patients aware of that fact, Veronika and those around her reflect on what brought them to Villete and what keeps them there.
Inspired in part by Coelho’s own time institutionalized, Veronika Decides to Die is very different from most of the more famous novels that take place at mental institutions (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted to name a few). There are references to treatments that have been called into question in the last half century and the stigma of having been institutionalized are briefly addressed, but what gives Veronika Decides to Die the subtitle A Novel of Redemption is its exploration of the freedoms that go hand-in-hand with being considered insane and the fluidity of the definition. It’s a concept I find fascinating as well, having explored it in my own writing. Who defines normal? How and why do we let the expectations and opinions of others to determine our behavior? And what would really happen if we stopped caring and did what we wanted, gave ourselves permission to be ourselves?
Veronika’s story itself, or at least her journey and the novel’s ending, are far from original. It’s a self-discovery plot that’s been around in novels and short stories for centuries and can be seen in a number of romantic comedies and feel good movies. What makes the predictability so forgivable is the way Coelho creates characters whose stories are so relatable. The aspect that I found so identifiable was the pressure to give up on seemingly unrealistic dreams and goals for the sake of practicality. A quick scan of Coelho’s biography show that some of his experience with his parents can be seen in the parent/child relationships of Veronika and fellow patient, Eduard. But it can be more than just parents “wanting what’s best” or urging a child to follow in their footsteps that causes someone to give up on something that means so much to them. There’s simple societal pressure to be practical and realistic. They’re pressures that I know I have come up against before and continue to see on a regular basis. But recognizing them for what they are is the first step to keeping them from stopping you in pursuing your goals.