“The Book of Madness and Cures,” a debut novel from Regina O’Melveny, begins in Venice at the end of the sixteenth century. Gabriella Mondini is a physician, trained by her father and influenced by her maid who has a talent for the application of herbs. She and her father were jointly compiling a book of diseases and their cures until her father left Venice on a long journey to visit and study medicine elsewhere in Europe. A decade after his departure and spurred by increasingly bizarre letters, Gabriella sets out to find him along with her maid, Olmina, and maid’s husband, Lorenzo.
Gabriella is something of an enigma in fin de siècle Venice—at thirty years old and unmarried, she’s quickly approaching eccentric spinsterhood, and as a woman physician, she’s only grudgingly accepted by the local guild because of her father’s status. When she sets out on a multi-country journey without chaperone, Gabriella’s assertion of her independence is shockingly clear. The journey carries them from Venice to major cities and small villages. Along the way they must navigate an unforgiving landscape and even harsher political and social atmospheres. More than once Gabriella and her maid find it necessary to pass as men to protect their small party. Gabriella can only disclose her medical training to trusted friends or risk being accused of witchcraft.
Despite the modernity of O’Melveny’s main character, “The Book of Madness and Cures” is otherwise frustratingly traditional. It teeters dangerously close to the trappings of historical romance as it trudges inevitably toward an uninspiring ending of marriage and childbirth. One has to wonder if, following the magnificent ending of Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot,” such a denouement will (finally!) be considered embarrassingly passé. O’Melveny revels in alliteration, seemingly unable to deny its decorous delights (see how I did that?). For example, “‘She’d have to give up her luxuries and frippery.’ Though I often sensed a sad futility under her frivolous pursuits.”
She’s also never met an adjective she didn’t like. “I watched the Zattere retreat, then San Marco appear beyond the other bell towers, steeples, canted roofs, the other quarters shabby, mossy, glorious, gleaming, prayerful, lively, sorrowful, muted, exuberant, fleshy, fabulous, then diminished—made one by distance, faint, flat, bluish white, thin as gauze I might use to wrap a wound.” This may challenge even the most tolerant of purple prose.
All of this reminded me of a friend who was having trouble meeting her daily word count in the NaNoWriMo contest until she discovered the secret to cranking out a novel in one month. “Why use one word,” she said with a wink, “When you can use three?” Or, in this case, nineteen. And yet, sometimes the embellished prose is wholly and beautifully appropriate, as when Gabriella discovers Lorenzo has saved her baby teeth. “Lorenzo had carried my teeth like seed pearls as he watched me grow into a woman. And still I wanted to travel to the far ends of the earth—to Barbaria, now—for the father who’d abandoned me.”
Where O’Melveny really shines is in the journaling of the book of diseases. Her descriptions of “madness” are imaginative side-notes to the story. Like “The Plague of Black Tears,” in which the afflicted’s tear ducts constantly run with inky black tears, a disease cured by saving the tears in jars and writing with them until the tears run clear again. Regardless of the overreaching elements, so common in first novels by poetic writers, O’Melveny vividly recreates this unique time in history, allowing the reader to easily immerse themselves. (Kelly Roark)
“The Book of Madness and Cures”
By Regina O’Melveny
Little, Brown and Company, 336 pages, $26