Monday, June 4, 2012

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O'Melveny

We'd been traveling for eight months, and all my inquiries had led nowhere. Though I now possessed his glasses, his shoes, and the description of a man unravelling in Edenburg. Perhaps I was the one unraveling?
-The Book of Madness and Cures

At the beginning of the novel, Gabriella is comfortable (if not happy) with her life as a woman doctor in late sixteenth-century Venice. Her father has been gone for ten years and her relationship with her mother is strained, though it seems that she could have continued this slightly unhappy if comfortable existence indefinitely. Two events force her into action. First, she received a letter from her father saying that he doesn't intend to return to Venice. Second, the Guild of Physicians informs her that they no longer support her membership without her father. She sets out to find her father by retracing his steps across Europe.

Even though Gabriella is thirty when the novel begins and is set in her life and career, it's still a coming of age story. In the beginning, Gabriella worships her father and has a strained relationship with her mother. She views Lorenzo and Olmina, the married couple who accompany her on her journey, as servants despite the fact that they had been with her since her birth and Olmina nursed Gabriella after her own daughter was stillborn. Gabriella has also given up on marriage following the death of her lover twelve years earlier. As the story unfolds and Gabriella learns more about her father and his apparent reasons for departing, she's forced to reconsider her relationship with both her mother and her father. She begins to see her father a regular, if flawed, person and as her view of her father changes, her view of her mother and her mothers' motivations also evolves. After a few of traveling with Lorenzo and Olmina, she also reexamines her relationship with them and their motivation for accompanying her on a difficult journey. And, of course, because it's such a common plot, she also encounters potential love interests who help to change her view on marriage and her future in that regard. Personally, the last element felt a little tacked on and obligatory, if not downright cliche. 

Initially, I had trouble getting into the story for some reason, but it was worth it. Watching Gabriella's growth was interesting, as was reading about her time in various cities. Throughout the book, there are excerpts from The Book of Diseases, a collection of illnesses that she is helping her father to finish. The excerpts gave insight not only into Gabriella's feelings, but also of the medicine of the era.

That said, as with a lot of similar novels, there was one major shortcoming. Gabriella and most other characters seemed a little too progressive. Very few of the people she encountered had a problem with the idea of a woman doctor or of a woman pretending to be a man (which happened a couple of times). Since Gabriella is following the travels of her father and staying with his acquaintances, this makes sense in a lot of cases because a man who trained his daughter as a doctor would presumably correspond with similarly progressive people. It makes less sense for people she randomly encounters. The views of Gabriella herself wouldn't be out of place today. I'm not an expert on the attitudes and beliefs of sixteenth century Venice, so it's entirely possible that Gabriella's attitude was reflective of the time. Also, if Gabriella has been a traditional woman, there wouldn't have been much of a novel since she would have just married and accepted her father's absence. Furthermore, I don't think the majority of readers would have enjoyed Gabriella discussing how she completely agreed with her city's decision to force Jews to live in ghettos. I also noticed that Gabriella tended to encounter fewer problems from other people as her journey progressed.

Overall, I really enjoyed the novel and would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed that time period or reading about older medical treatment.

This book counts toward the Support Your Local Library Challenge and 2012 Debut Adult Fiction Author Challenge

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