The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny (Little, Brown and Company; 336 pages; $25.99)
Life in sixteenth-century Venetia is becoming tenuous, at least for women doctors, in Regina O’Melveny’s uneven historical novel The Book of Madness and Cures. There are very few of them, and many look at them with contempt. Perhaps those who most scorn these physicians are male doctors. The true reason behind their disdain is the simple fact that they feel threatened by these women.
Such is the case for Dr. Gabriella Mondini. The medical guild has expelled her from their membership. You see, a female doctor must have a male mentor to vouch for her, restrain her, and stay those womanly impulses (can you feel my sarcasm?) Gabriella treats female patients who are more comfortable being looked at by a woman. She is very good at what she does. She learned medicine from her father.
Dr. E.B. Mondini, though, is AWOL. He left Venetia ten years before the story begins to work on his magnum opus, The Book of Diseases. Gabriella’s father has roamed around Europe all this time. He writes home infrequently. His letters are undated and grow increasingly stranger and stranger over time. It seems very unlikely that Gabriella’s father will ever return.
His long absence becomes problematic for Gabriella only when it affects her professionally. His weird letters do not raise red flags for Gabriella for ten years. But one day, the guild comes to her and says she is no longer allowed to practice. This is a crushing blow to her.
The edict is especially hard because Gabriella loves treating patients and is quite a student of medicine. She never stops learning and is always eager to hear of illnesses and cures. Gabriella, though, is unmarried, a fact her mother laments often: “Bear children. Why not marry a good doctor? Why must you be one?” (Yes, I laughed when I read it, too.) Medicine is Gabriella’s spouse ever since the love of her life died from plague several years ago. Medicine has been a salve for her broken heart.
Now medicine is lost to her. She zeroes in only then on her father. If she can find him and bring him home, she will be readmitted to the Guild. Gabriella is only interested in what he can do for her. Her anger over his disappearance is palpable, and it has been two years since his last letter.
Her life in Venetia “is a prison.” This stunning revelation is all the impetus she needs. “I can no longer practice medicine there, and my father’s last letter proved a fine gadfly, stinging me to change things as they are,” Gabriella reveals. So she decides to go look for her father. Accompanied by two trustworthy servants, she will travel to the places from which her father posted his letters and will stay with his colleagues in those towns and villages. She then sets off on a quest to find him, but her journey is nothing Joseph Campbell would appreciate. However, I do not fault Gabriella.
The real fault lies with O’Melveny. There is so much early promise in The Book of Madness and Cures. Gabriella is a character who defies convention. O’Melveny’s character development of Gabriella is initially strong but falters in the middle and then eventually weakens in the end. I do not buy that such an original, unconventional woman would have a baby and marry in the end. O’Melveny must be championing Gabriella as an early pioneer of the feminist movement when she gives her choices. Yet, in all actuality, women during this time did not have the choices Gabriella’s character has.
The real problem with this novel is the plot. Obstacles delay Gabriella’s journey at every turn. I do not buy this. O’Melveny seeks to draw out the story, but her tactic is tiresome. I understand that she must stall or she would have no book. However, O’Melveny forgets the premise for the tale: to find Dr. Mondini. Instead, Gabriella and her servants gallivant around Europe. Their meanderings give O’Melveny the opportunity to tell you every single thing she can find about whichever place her characters are at the time. Her writing is distracted and awkward in these instances.
History is good, especially since this is historical fiction. I love two things O’Melveny does in her novel, and both involve history. The first is illuminating how dangerous travel for a woman was in some European countries in the sixteenth century. A village through which Gabriella and her servants travel has no women. A man explains the church rounded all of the women up on suspicion of witchcraft. This was a common charge against women during this era and a nice addition to the story. Gabriella fears for her life, she is a woman and a doctor after all, so she cuts her hair and dresses like a man. I told you she defies convention. Too bad O’Melveny does not stick with this.
The second thing O’Melveny does that I love is she portrays how much of sixteenth-century Europe was a place in between eras. Many people, peasants in particular, still believed in the old medieval superstitions. Magic and potions ruled the day. The great Italian cities might be enjoying a Renaissance in art, music, architecture, and politics, but the common people knew little of this. They were still stuck in the past. The Age of Reason and the science of medicine were just beginning. O’Melveny shines in these passages. For example, merchants and businessmen were becoming part of the middle class but many lacked proper manners. O’Melveny shows how some used their forks as weapons while dining. Tongues wagged over “who forked whom.” Passages which highlighted the above are brilliant but, sadly, few.
Indeed, the sad and frustrated reader will want more. Especially where it concerns the missing Dr. Mondini. O’Melveny alludes to an illness, the “family madness,” that he may or may not have. She suggests he is a lunatic and that the phases of the moon affect him. At times, I worry he will howl at the moon or something. His malady is just too vague. When Gabriella finds her father’s glasses and shoes that he left behind, the mystery only deepens. More explanation is needed. The same is true for the murder of Wilhelm Lochner, a man who Gabriella meets on her journey. These are threads O’Melveny leaves hanging.
I cannot recommend The Book of Madness and Cures. O’Melveny loses her way in this novel and the plot suffers. The characters suffer. However, there is no reason for you, dear reader, to endure this painful read. If this time period interests you, try Sarah Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan.