Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tuesday Review: The Book of Madness and Cures


The Book of Madness and Cures
By Regina O’Melveny
Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Release Date: April 10, 2012


Gabriella Mondini is a physician, trained by her father to practice his craft. But her father has been gone ten years on his journey to learn about medicine in the larger world beyond Venice, his letters growing more infrequent and stranger as the years pass. In 1590, a letter arrives announcing that he has no plans to return to his city, to his practice, or to his family. The Guild of Physicians has always been unhappy with Gabriella practicing medicine, and she has been allowed to treat only women. But her father’s prolonged absence results in the Guild’s forbidding her to practice at all without her father’s sponsorship. At thirty, Gabriella’s life is medicine. She is unmarried and childless. She is at odds with her unhappy mother. She feels as if she is disappearing. And so she sets out to find her father, accompanied by faithful servants Olmina and Lorenzo and taking with her the letters from her father, bits of the book about diseases he was writing, and the 16th-century equivalent of a doctor’s bag.


Using her father’s letters to roughly map her journey, Gabriella travels to Germany, France, Scotland, the Netherlands, and finally to Morocco. Each point on the journey offers Gabriella another piece of the puzzle that is her father, although she is not always willing to accept them since they also force her to reexamine her memories of her father and to question when his madness began. Inevitably the journey also becomes a journey of self-discovery for Gabriella as well. She has always been her father’s daughter, but that identity now carries ominous overtones. When she is forced to wear male clothing for her own safety, she relishes the freedom they bring. Yet she is reluctant to cut the hair that marks her as female, even when not doing so clearly increases her risk. She both longs for and fears romantic/sexual love, and it could be argued that the resolution owes more to the tenacity of a red-haired Scottish doctor than to Gabriella’s resolving her inner conflicts.


This is a book I wanted to read from the time I read the first description. It sounded fascinating, and indeed I found it to be so on several levels.  The Renaissance world is richly rendered—the university towns, the seeds of modern science, the ignorance and superstition, the distinctive flavor of each city Gabriella visits. But the wonderful recreation of place made Gabriella’s modernity seem starker in contrast. Except for the folk medicine, she seemed a most unlikely Renaissance heroine.


Very early in the book, Gabriella is treating a young girl who has lost her sense of a separate self, and Gabriella says, “The cure, then, consisted of words.” I adopted that sentence as my defense against the critic in me that deplored the occasional flatness of character and the pace of the book, which was painfully slow at times. The cure for these severe complaints was indeed in the words. O’Melvey is a poet, and she, with few lapses, uses language with the grace and exactness that one expects from an accomplished poet. The excerpts from Gabriella’s notes for the Book of Diseases will doubtless be distractions for some readers, but I thought they were poetry, evocative and indirect and saying more than they seemed to say. And then there were the lyrical descriptions. I’d conclude the book was worth my investment of time if only to have read lines like these that describe a scene in the Scottish Highlands: “A sea like beaten tin. Tall ships ticking across the horizon like the ornate hands of a wondrous clock.”


The Book of Madness and Cures is not historical romance, but it does have romantic elements. In fact, I’m willing to bet the price of the book that there are reviewers of literary fiction who have reviewed/will review this book and decry the ending. The feminists among them will read the ending as a betrayal of Gabriella’s struggle, and others will view the happy ending as hopelessly sentimental, the kind of thing one hopes to find only in those trashy romance novels. Although I’ve been a feminist since before the Revolution and have the credentials and experience to be a literary critic, my response to the book’s ending places me outside both of those camps and solidly among readers of those trashy books who cherish their happy endings. I like Hamish. Honestly, he’s my favorite character in the book.


So, do I recommend this book? I do with some caveats. If you’re looking for a fast-paced book with a compelling plot, this one will not suit. If you’re looking for a heroine who makes you warmly and fuzzily sympathize with her, don’t pick this one up. But if your taste sometimes runs to contemplative journeys and musical prose and vivid historical background, you may find this book rewarding, although not flawless.



Do you read literary fiction? What’s your favorite “literary” book? How do you feel about books that follow the author’s path rather than one other people laid out?











3 comments:

quantum said...

If you’re looking for a fast-paced book with a compelling plot, this one will not suit

A pity. I do like a compelling plot!

If you’re looking for a heroine who makes you warmly and fuzzily sympathize with her, don’t pick this one

Drat. I usually like to fall in love with the heroine!

if your taste sometimes runs to contemplative journeys and musical prose and vivid historical background, you may find this book rewarding

Humm. I do have a taste for all of those features!

What is a fella to do?

Go to Amazon:
The Book of Madness and Cures
Paperback: £6.39 Kindle Edition: £9.99

That's the decider. I only want e-books and that pricing is outrageous!

quantum said...

Almost forgot your birthday Janga.

Many happy returns!
I hope you get lots and lots of wonderful books.

Janga said...

I know, Q. I won't pay those ebook prices either, at least not usually. I do pay them for Balogh and Nora and a few others in hardback, but most of the time, if I don't get an ARC to review, I put them on hold at the library.

Thanks for the birthday wishes. It's still three weeks away, but we have so many family birthdays from late June through late July that it's an on-going celebration for six weeks. :)