Regina O’Melveny – The Book of Madness and Cures

reginaomelveny-thebookofmadnessandcuresGabriella Mondini is a rarity in sixteenth-century Venice: a woman who practices medicine. But when her father disappears on a mysterious journey, she is no longer permitted to treat her patients and is forced to defy all convention to cross Europe and find where – and why – he has gone.

Following the clues that her father has left – enigmatic letters from his travels as he researches his vast encyclopaedia, The Book of Diseases – Gabriella retraces his steps. Along the way she encounters danger, love, tragedy and a revelation about a family secret and her father’s fate.

From its cover copy The Book of Madness and Cures sounded like something I’d definitely enjoy and while I did enjoy the time I spent within its pages, I had issues with the narrative and one major gripe with one of the sections. The journey Gabriella takes following her father through his letters is the physical reflection of a far more important spiritual journey she has to make. One in which she has to let go of her father and of the past and has to find herself and her own path in life.

The characters of Gabriella, her father, mother, Olmina, and Lorenzo where well established. Especially the way O’Melveny constructs Dr. Mondini through Gabriella’s memories, his letters and what Gabriella learns about him from the people she encounters on her journey is skilful and unexpectedly layered. However, other characters where far less detailed and started to run together a bit, which was a shame, as it left Gabriella floating through the narrative only brushing up against these people, instead of actually connecting with them and grounding the narrative.

Gabriella covers a lot of ground in what is essentially a slim volume. As with the majority of the secondary characters, the backdrop feels a little flat; it is exactly that, a backdrop against which Gabriella is able to discover clues about her father and ponder her future and her identity. It feels like there are more pages spent in the first two destinations, than in what are conceivably the more important destinations of Edinburgh and Taradante, with the stop-over at Montpellier. It’s an odd imbalance and I thought more time could have been spent developing the connection between Hamish and Gabriella. Similarly, there was a bit of a disconnect between the time spent on showing the relationship developing between Wilhelm and Gabriella and the fact that Wilhelm decided to follow her to Leiden.

It is also the stay at Leiden that constitutes the biggest problem of the book for me. Gabriella, Olmina, and Lorenzo arrive in Leiden in the year 1590 and go to stay with Professor Otterspeer at the Hortus Botanicus. Only in 1590 there was no Hortus in Leiden, while the city council granted permission for the University to create a botanical garden in 1590, it didn’t actually open to the public until 1594. In addition the first director was Carolus Clusius, who was appointed to the post in 1592. Before this time there was a medical garden in the private home of Professor Lipsius, which was close by the location of the Hortus. Why did this inaccuracy bother me so much? It’s historical fiction after all, not historical fact. Partly it is because Leiden is my home town; I work right across the canal from the Hortus and am familiar with its history, so it was easy to spot the time-frame slip-up. And partly it’s because this discrepancy is so unnecessary. From the narrative, there doesn’t seem to be any pressing reason for the book to be set in the years 1590-91; set it half a decade later and it would all have been possible. Substituting Professor Otterspeer in Clusius’ place could even be considered a playful acknowledgement of Prof. Dr. Willem Otterspeer, the current Professor of Leiden University History. And had O’Melveny said as much in an author’s note and had even said she knew that the Hortus was only planted a year or two after her story takes place, but that she took a bit of poetic license with the dates, I wouldn’t have minded as much. But without this information, I started doubting all the other things in the book as well, which was rather distracting from the story.

This distraction is a shame, as the plot of the story is an interesting one, as it interweaves the mystery of Gabrielle’s father’s fate and her gradual awakening to her own identity and independence. This is all written in often beautifully descriptive prose, which captures the surroundings beautifully. The Book of Madness and Cures has a great concept and contains great imagery, but let itself down in the execution. The ending is also just a little disappointing in the end, but that is perhaps due to my own high expectations. If you’re a fan of lovely language though, The Book of Madness and Cures is one you’ll want to read.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.