The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny; published 2012 by Little, Brown and Company
Unfortunately, I cannot come to you bearing much good news about this book. The premise is intriguing and I had high hopes, but this book took me over two weeks to get through—which is a preposterous amount of time for a book of its size (for me).
Our narrator is Gabriella Mondini, a thirty-year-old doctor in 16th century Venice. She has been trained by her father, a respected but eccentric physician. Gabriella faces much opposition as a woman trying to pursue what other Venetian physicians consider a man’s calling. When the book begins, Gabriella’s father has been traveling abroad for many years researching cases of diseases, which he hopes to collect and publish in a Book of Diseases. But suddenly her father’s letters stop and without the help of her father, Gabriella’s career is in jeopardy. She decides to travel to every city she received a letter from to find clues about what happened to her father.
Essentially, the entire novel is spent following Gabriella to several cities throughout Europe. She takes along her two servants, Olmina and Lorenzo. I think these were meant to be endearing characters, and Lorenzo sometimes was, but on the whole, they were just boring. Unfortunately, I was rather underwhelmed by the account of the bear killing Lorenzo, and I was relieved when Olmina returned to Venice. They were not missed, though Gabriella seemed to miss them. Each time the reader is informed that Gabriella feels a strong emotion, I was surprised, because I did not share that supposedly strong emotion. Despite being a first-person narrative, the reader remains wholly distanced from Gabriella and does not take part in her emotional experiences.
At each city Gabriella receives more hints that her father has become sick and is actually mad. This suspicion is pretty well confirmed before she even finds her father, so that by the time we do finally find him locked up like an animal so that he can’t hurt himself, I am wondering what the point of the whole journey was.
There are some inexpert stabs at feminist themes throughout the book. In fact, I was reminded very much of Jane Eyre at times. Take, for instance, this passage:
“I’ve since come to believe that the world is populated by multitudes of women sitting at windows inseparable from their surroundings. I myself spent many hours at a window on the Zattere, waiting for my father’s return, waiting for my life to appear like one of those great ships that came to harbor, broad sails filled with the wind of providence.” (5)
I can’t help thinking of Jane in the third story corridor, pacing back and forth in silent rebellion against a woman’s lot. And then there is the coincidence of the two mad persons, Gabriella’s father and Bertha Mason (Rochester): both are compared to animals, needing to be restrained lest they commit violence to themselves or others. However, Gabriella Mondini is not nearly as admirable or sympathetic as Jane is. There are many areas that needed to be further developed to make a good feminist case—Gabriella’s strained relationship with her mother, her completely uninhibited relationship with an Edinburgh scientist—but her desire to be esteemed and respected as men are only seems to go as far as her occupation as a doctor. Hamish does follow Gabriella back to Venice to live so that she can continue as a doctor there. This would have been a huge condescension on the part of Hamish back then and would certainly have raised eyebrows (at least!), but it slips under the reader’s radar. The detail might have been more momentous had there been any struggle between Hamish and Gabriella regarding her role.
The redeeming quality of the book was its rich discussion of ancient medicines and the humors. Throughout the novel we get to read entries in the Book of Diseases. Each entry includes a story—always about a woman—who suffers what appears to be not only a physical illness, but an emotional one. However, we never actually get to the bottom of the emotional illness. Gabriella is interested in herbal remedies, something that the other doctors consider indicative of black magic. When Gabriella and her companions come to Tubingen (Germany), she is warned that there have been many witch-hunts there. Of course, I interpreted this information as foreshadowing a delicious scandal for the leading lady. But she easily disguises herself and makes it through Tubingen without even running into a possible witch-hunter, which I found greatly disappointing.