The Book of Madness and Cures – Regina O’Melveney

coverI received The Book of Madness and Cures through Netgalley for review – thanks to them and the publisher.

I have to say I was disappointed with this book. I didn’t really have expectations, per se; I think I’ve commented before about how odd it is to go into most Kindle books as blindly as I do. I rarely read a book right after acquiring it, so opening it up some time after having read the description that prompted me to buy it (or, in this case, request it), divorced of even the cover image, is a strange feeling. But the The Book‘s writing held my attention from the beginning; I liked the tone, and the first-person narrator, Gabriella Mondini, and the setting, and the idea:

Gabriella is the daughter of a doctor, and of a temperament and mind to follow him in his profession. However, she lives in 1590 Venice, and a woman doctor is – barely – tolerated only if a man sponsors her. Which is fine, while her father does so; but he left some ten years ago on a journey to – ostensibly – gather medicines from foreign climes along with data for the tremendous Book of Diseases he has spent Gabriella’s lifetime compiling. His last letter makes it clear he’s not likely to come back, and he orders Gabriella not to send after him – so of course, since she loves him and also since she cannot continue to practice medicine without him, she packs her bags and convinces her servants to come with her to go find him, leaving her fretful mother (think Mrs. Bennet, in a way) all alone without a qualm.

A journey through Renaissance Europe is a great frame for a story. The quest for tales of unfamiliar diseases and cures is also promising. That the journey is undertaken by a woman, accompanied only by an elderly couple, and is also following in her father’s footsteps – this was where the disappointment began to set in for me. I continued to enjoy the writing; I continued to like Gabriella; but somehow I wasn’t entirely satisfied by the settings, the descriptions of which seemed to be dominated by the religious and climactic temperatures rather than the taste of different food and the smell of foreign scents and the feel of different air.

Also, I admit the Italianization and Renaissancization (I know, I’m tired and making up words now, sorry) of countries’ names took some getting used to. So much of the writing felt quite contemporary – especially with things like Gabriella mentioning that something was a meter away (or deep or wide) when the metric system was not (as best I can find) invented for another 150 years or so – that, in the exhausted stressed-out stupor in which I read this, the antiquated names threw me. Yes, it took ages for the lightbulb to go off that the next country the travelers were headed for was Scotland. Yes, I felt stupid when I realized.

Gabriella is an intelligent woman, a tremendous boon to her father’s work while she surreptitiously begins her own book, focusing more on women’s ailments. She is Different, a creature utterly apart from the ordinary run of women, particularly in the time period. Which is why I felt let down by her. The fact that during two of the stops along the way she falls, to one extent or another, in love with a handy (and of course young and handsome) intellectual – this did not feel like it fit with the rest of her personality. The fate of one of those young men went nowhere; it was a somewhat far-fetched and disturbing incident, and I can’t think of a thing it added to the book. The romance Gabriella eventually tumbles into felt almost grafted on, and the disruption it threatened to her search for her father offended me slightly; here she is, on a Mission to find her father, setting out to prove everyone wrong about the womanly stereotypes, and she is about to be thrown completely off her undertaking by a man? Sigh.

Worse, though, for me, is the complete illogic of the search. The idea is that Gabriella and her father wrote to each other fairly regularly over the ten years he’s been gone, and now she will try to find him by following the path described in those letters. But does she start with the most recent letter, the warmest scent, the freshest trail? Well, no. She starts at the very beginning and literally follows her father’s path from place to place to place. a way, this is a great way to tell the tale. As she visits the people her father stayed with and worked with ten years ago, and eight years ago, and so on, as in a few cases she gathers up items he left behind him, it begins to be obvious that he’s not well. There’s something very, very wrong – and not physically. She sees her father’s deterioration as an unfolding story, a puzzle being completed piece by piece and place by place; if she had done the logical thing and started at the end she would have been confronted with the end result and the book would have been a third the length. But I wish her choice of journey had been presented as the logical thing. I wish there had been some reasoning for it: she only knew her father’s first location, and only on talking to the people there could she learn his next stop, and the next, and so on to the end. Oh well.

Anecdotes from Gabriella’s Book of Diseases are dusted throughout the book, along with samplings of her father’s letters and bits of his book – but unless I completely missed the point (always possible) there is no corollary made between them and the journey as far as I could see, and no purpose other than entertainment value. And in fact for me the entertainment value was, while certainly present, somewhat limited by the fact that the tales told were about half an inch away from being fairy tales. These stories – of a woman covered in hair, and another so severely claustrophobic she could no longer live in a house, and of the black tears shed by those prevented from speech for long periods … There are documented medical cases of some version of the first two conditions, at least, but these stories themselves were fantastical, despite the fact that at least some were supposed to be from the direct experience of Gabriella and her father. If there had been more of a magical aura about the rest of the story, I think I would have swallowed the whole thing happily. As it was, the only real unreality of Gabriella’s quest was the unlikelihood that a woman and a pair of elderly servants would have as successful a journey as they do (even with the women dressed as men at times). The contrast between the pretty thoroughly mundane of Gabriella’s narration and the fantasy of the so-scientific Books just stuck in my throat a little.

The cap to the disappointment was in the ending. No spoilers here, but I felt there was at the same time a too-complete resolution and a complete lack of resolution to the story. It wrapped up too quickly and neatly while still leaving bits and small ends dangling annoyingly. Overall, it felt like a near miss.

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