The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny – Book Review

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny
Published by Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette

From the publisher:

Dr. Gabriella Mondini, a strong-willed, young Venetian woman, has followed her father in the path of medicine. She possesses a singleminded passion for the art of physick, even though, in 1590, the male-dominated establishment is reluctant to accept a woman doctor. So when her father disappears on a mysterious journey, Gabriella’s own status in the Venetian medical society is threatened. Her father has left clues–beautiful, thoughtful, sometimes torrid, and often enigmatic letters from his travels as he researches his vast encyclopedia, The Book of Diseases.

After ten years of missing his kindness, insight, and guidance, Gabriella decides to set off on a quest to find him–a daunting journey that will take her through great university cities, centers of medicine, and remote villages across Europe. Despite setbacks, wary strangers, and the menaces of the road, the young doctor bravely follows the clues to her lost father, all while taking notes on maladies and treating the ill to supplement her own work.

The Book of Madness and Cures gets off to a strong start. Gabriella is an intriguing character, being a fairly independent woman, and a doctor in a time when women were categorically not doctors. In fact, it isn’t truly her father’s disappearance that sends her off into the great unknown – although she certainly misses him – but the fact that she is told that due to his prolonged absence she will no longer be allowed to practice medicine on her own. Without her practice, there is nothing keeping Gabriella in Venice, and she begins following the path of her father’s letters. Oddly, however, she seems to follow them largely in the order the letters were received, rather than either a route that made geographic sense, or one that hit later locations first. This was frustrating as a reader, because it seemed inconsistent with her logical and intelligent character, although it served the purpose of prolonging her journey for the sake of story.

Like Gabriella’s journey through Europe and North Africa, The Book of Madness and Cures eventually turns to meandering. It did not seem that she ultimately learned anything about herself or the world on her long and often arduous journey. Because of this, The Book of Madness and Cures seems to lose its purpose part way through the book. Gabriella’s journalings on diseases are certainly interesting, but they fail to really come to anything significant and thus feel like just one more piece of the book that doesn’t really come together.

Although it starts strong, The Book of Madness and Cures fails to live up to its full potential. It is interesting, but not captivating.

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