In Renaissance Venice, a brilliant and unusual young woman is the only female doctor permitted to practice. She is the companion, research assistant and student of her father, himself a renowned physician. Gabriella Mondini is passionate about her healing work and the knowledge she and her father are assembling into his magnum opus, The Book of Diseases, a compendium of everything known about medicinal plants, highly imaginative cures, folk remedies, bezoars and other medical marvels. And then her father disappears.
The Book of Madness and Cures is Gabriella’s search for her elusive father and for her own identity. He has been journeying for some unspecified purpose for ten years, writing to her sporadically from various university towns in Italy, Scotland, Morocco and then vanishing. Soon enough, without the sponsorship of her famous father, the physician’s guild withdraws permission for Gabriella to practice. Over her mother’s protests, she sets out with two longtime family servants and her own medical chest to retrace his steps.
Regina O’Melveny’s richly layered novel is crammed with details of the hardships of travel, the learning of distinguished physicians at some of Europe’s great universities, the stubborn hope of an intrepid young woman that her beloved father will be found alive, her growing dismay as she tracks disturbing stories of mad behavior and begins to suspect that some family curse may have set him in flight from her.
Very dense book but a real story with fleshed -out characters, a colorful historical canvas and a classic journey to the interior of the self. Gabriella is single-minded in her search, curious about the amazing breadth of knowledge that begins to unfold for her, faithful to transcribing all she discovers into a book of her own, worthy of publication. It works on many levels. Nothing cliched–and wholly believable, if startling and dramatic, plot developments. The Book of Madness and Cures is well-named on a number of levels. I would re-read it for the vast amount of information I probably missed tackling it as a one-day read.
The Book of Madness and Cures: A Novel Regina O’Melveny | Little, Brown and Company 2012