65 pages 2 hours read

Paulo Coelho

Eleven Minutes

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


When first released in 2003, Eleven Minutes by the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho was the year’s number one international bestselling book, far outpacing the number two bestseller, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Eleven Minutes was a long-term project for Coelho, who experienced a number of serendipitous events propelling him into writing a book about sex workers. Hearing the stories of sex workers in Switzerland and recognizing touchstones in his own journey of understanding sexuality helped the author determine the course of the narrative and the truths he wanted the novel to express. The narrative concerns the maturing of a beautiful, highly intelligent young Brazilian woman, Maria, who stumbles onto the opportunity to travel to Switzerland as a dancer but ends up as well-paid sex worker. Maria hardens her heart against feeling any affection for her clients and saves her money for her return to Brazil. Her plans are interrupted by Ralf Hart, a famous artist whom she tries desperately not to love.

The book contains frank discussions of the institution and history of sex work. The author uses the term “prostitute”; this guide replaces that term when not in quotes with “sex worker.” While it contains three erotically described sexual encounters, the book does not include vulgar language or epithets.

The version of the book being used for this guide is the HarperOne 2021 English language edition.

Plot Summary

The author describes an innocent girl, Maria, who imagines a number of fantasy relationships with boys who go to school with her. While she endures one disappointment after another with the boys she meets, she eventually grasps the reality that true love and sexual enjoyment are two distinct states. While she believes one day her true love will appear, she devotes herself to learning how to use her beauty and her allure to manipulate men.

By the time she is 22, Maria has saved up enough money from her job at a drapery company to travel to Rio de Janeiro alone for a week’s vacation. Almost immediately, she meets Roger, a cabaret owner from Geneva, Switzerland, who offers her a job as a samba dancer at his club. Maria flies with Roger to Switzerland, where she is promptly turned over to the care of an older Brazilian woman who explains to her all the details in her work contract that she should have asked about before coming to Geneva. Her pay is scant, and the work conditions at the club are quite restrictive. Still, she begins to learn French and to explore Geneva.

Fired by Roger for going on a date and missing a day’s work, Maria threatens him with legal action and in return receives a large severance payment. Having been repeatedly told she is beautiful, Maria pays for a model’s photo portfolio and distributes it to various modeling agencies. For two full months, she hears nothing from any of the agencies. When she eventually does get a call from an agency, it turns out to be a traveling businessman, who offers her 1000 francs for a sexual encounter. She accepts his offer. The following day, Maria decides she will attempt to become a sex worker. She has heard of the area called Rue de Berne, which contains numerous clubs where men go to meet up with sex workers. Entering a club with a Brazilian name, the Copacabana, she shows her work permit to the owner, Milan, and on her first evening engages two separate clients.

Within a few weeks, Maria is making a considerable amount of money and has learned a great deal about sex work. She decides she will work for nine months, meaning she will have spent one full year in Geneva. As she refines her abilities as a sex worker, Maria continues to write in her diary, which contains many profound insights belying her youthfulness and relative ignorance. She becomes an expert in knowing how to talk to her clients and address their needs. Often, she receives proposals for marriage or to become a kept woman. Maria steadfastly clings to her decision to return to Brazil and buy a farm for her parents and herself, believing that upon her return she will meet her true love and no one will ever know what she did to earn money in Switzerland.

While walking around Geneva, she ends up in a cantina along the “road to Santiago,” a medieval route traveled by Christian pilgrims. She is asked by an artist if she will allow him to paint her face for a mural he is creating. Maria discovers this is Ralf Hart, an internationally known artist whose work is in great demand. Ralf guesses, having seen her at the Copacabana, that Maria is a sex worker. They end up spending the day together, clearly very attracted to one another.

That evening Ralf comes to the Copacabana. He tries to hire Maria, who refuses to go with him. She hopes he might return and try again. Three days later he returns and pays to have Maria with him for the entire evening. They go to Ralf’s house and have a lengthy discussion, with each of them offering the other a symbolic gift. Telling Ralf to stay away from the club for a week, Maria leaves by herself without having sex. In her diary, she writes that their two souls made arrangements to get together before they were ever born.

Believing that Maria is ready for “special clients,” Milan introduces her to Terence, a British music executive. He initiates Maria into the basic elements of sadomasochism (BDSM) and promises he will soon return.

The next evening, Maria and Ralf sit on the floor by his fireplace and play mental games in the darkness. They have a philosophical discussion of love, reflecting on the notion that people are always incomplete unless they find a true love to serve as their lost other half. Maria leaves again without having sex with Ralf.

Terence returns, contracts with Maria for a full evening, and introduces her to the role-playing aspects of BDSM. Maria is frightened but much more curious. After humiliating and dominating Maria, he touches her with the end of a whip, resulting in her profound sexual response.

Full of questions about BDSM, Maria learns from Ralf the next night that he has had all the same role-playing experiences, which he denigrates as removing the participants from the real world. If she wants to engage in BDSM activities, he will no longer pursue her. He makes her walk on a rocky beach as he teaches her a lesson about human pain. Having researched the history of sex work, Ralf shares some profound insights that Maria finds moving.

To heighten Ralf’s interest in sexuality, Maria takes him to a hotel room overlooking the road to Santiago and blindfolds him. The two touch each other gently but do not engage in intercourse. Ralf invites her to come with him to a showing of his art. Maria accepts, though she is not sure she will attend, since she is quietly planning to fly back to Brazil. She has reached a crossroad, believing if she remains in Geneva any longer, she will never return to Brazil. She goes to the Copacabana and tells Milan she is through. Systematically she prepares herself for her departure.

Accepting Ralf’s invitation, she meets him in a church and goes to the reception where he introduces her to his friends. Afterward she goes to the library one last time to say goodbye to the librarian she has befriended. The librarian at last tells Maria her name: Heidi. They discuss female sexuality, which is a topic Maria had attempted to research before with little luck. Heidi had responded by acquiring several new books about sex. After Maria leaves the library, Heidi finds herself wishing she had told her about her one extra-marital fling, something about which Maria had asked. Heidi still has no idea that Maria is actually a sex worker.

Maria records in her diary her final night with Ralf, in which they at last consummate their relationship in a highly charged fashion. The following morning while he is sleeping, Maria rises and departs for the airport, wishing Ralf would wake and stop her from leaving. She flies from Geneva to Paris, where she will catch a connecting flight to Brazil. Disembarking in Paris, she hears the voice of Ralf, who had been watching her for hours in Geneva then caught a shuttle flight to Paris so he could be there to persuade her not to leave.