“Gabriella Mondini is a rarity in 16th century Venice: a woman who practices medicine. Her father, a renowned physician, has provided her entr e to this all-male profession, and inspired in her a shared mission to understand the secrets of the human body.
Then her father disappears and Gabriella faces a crisis: she is no longer permitted to treat her patients, women who need her desperately, without her father’s patronage. She sets out across Europe to find where-and why-he has gone. Following clues from his occasional enigmatic letters, Gabriella crosses Switzerland, Germany and France, entering strange and forbidding cities. She travels to Scotland, the Netherlands, and finally to Morocco. In each new land she probes the mystery of her father’s flight, and open new mysteries of her own. Not just mysteries of ailments and treatments, but ultimate mysteries of mortality, love, and the timeless human spirit.”
Thoughts: During a time period where men and women were readily tortured and burned for being witches or having control over mystical forces, would a woman, let alone an unmarried one, really be allowed to openly practice medicine? When decorum and appearances meant everything, would an unmarried woman of status be able to travel by herself across a continent? Ultimately, these are the questions readers must reconcile when approaching The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny, for these questions are the main premise behind the story.
The Book of Madness and Cures leaves a lot for the reader to uncover on one’s own, without much in the way of clues or answers. Why does Gabriella wait ten years before searching for her father, when she has been the recipient of slurs and barbs from the Guild long before they announce she can no longer practice medicine? More importantly, why even train Gabriella as a doctor in the first place? Wouldn’t her father put her own safety before his desires to pass along his knowledge? Questions like these remain frustratingly unanswered, even though their answers would go a long way to adding credence to a highly improbable storyline. If the reader could understand better past decisions, then Gabriella herself, as well as her entire journey, becomes slightly more plausible.
The Book of Madness and Cures is really a tale of two stories. On the one hand, it leaves a lot to be desired in the way of realism. One cannot help but admire Gabriella’s tenacity, even while questioning the veracity of her story and her journey. The emotional elements are lacking, making the story-telling uninspiring and the characters flat and insipid. Similarly, the entire novel feels a bit like a fairy tale, with a hapless hero on a quest to uncover the truth and find happiness, complete with its own tidy, and happy, ending.
On the other hand, it is an interesting look at life during the Renaissance and fascinating glimpse of medicine in the 1590s. The discussions of remedies, herbal and otherwise, medical knowledge and supposition, and even descriptions of “diseases” make for mesmerizing reading. Similarly, the minutiae of Gabriella’s trip, when described, offer intriguing hints as to what the world was like during this time. These nuggets of appealing factoids are what keep the reader coming back for more, no matter how far-fetched the story might seem. Unfortunately, The Book of Madness and Cures is enjoyable from the historical aspect but rather unexciting when it comes to the plot and all of the various characters, making for a jagged story that one can only recommend to others with the utmost caution.