Saturday, April 21, 2012

Review: The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O'Melveny

Author: Regina O'Melveny
Publisher-Format: Little Brown, e-galley 307 pages
Year of publication: 2012
Subject: women as doctors, 16th century medicine
Setting: Venice, Switzerland, France,Holland, Scotland, No.Africa
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: publisher via NetGalley

Although it took me a while to get into this book, the well-crafted words and images made me continue.  Suddenly, the story clicked, and I found myself eager to continue reading.  I'm not a reader who enjoys a lot of fantasy, and there is that element in the telling of this story but it does all seem to come together in the end.

Essentially O'Melveny spins us a colorful, emotional tale of a young woman doctor, Gabriella Mondini,  who sets off on an extraordinary quest beginning in the year 1590.  Having been born and raised in Venice, she was taught the art and science of medicine by her father, and was considered by the authorities in that city to be a Dottoressa in her own right.  When her father suddenly leaves on an unexplained journey, she is left with no sponsorship, and is not able to work as openly.  Ten years go by, confusing letters from Dr Mondini arrive about once a year, and Gabriella can no longer wait.  She begins to fear her father is going mad, and will never return.

Taking her two faithful servants with her, she embarks on a lushly described mission to find her father and bring him home. Following the trail of his letters, she jouneys from Venice to Switzerland (Germany?)  to France, to Holland, to Scotland (where she meets the handsome Hamish) and then on to North Africa.   Woven into the travails of the travelers are poetic excerpts from her encyclopedic journal of diseases and cures-- a work she and her father had begun before his abrupt departure so long ago.  The handsome Hamish provides a veiled hint of romance to add to the mystery of what happened to her father.

Throughout her ramblings, (there is a good desciption of the trip and a map of her travels on the author's homepage) O'Melveny manages to weave in tid-bits of history about the attitudes of various countries and governments toward women doctors. I found much of the story disjointed, although I enjoyed the descriptions of the dress, food, housing, and medical treatments of the era. I finished the book with a sense of satisfaction, but cannot say that I understood everything that was going on with father and daughter. If you are a fantasy reader, this book will rate very high on your enjoyment meter. If you are a more literal reader like me, you might have more of a struggle. Do check out the webpage....there are some beautiful illustrations, and short descriptions of the places visited.

 My thanks to Little Brown for the opportunity to read and review.


  1. I have seen this book on several blogs. Sounds like a good mix of history and fantasy. I might pick it up at the library some time. Thanks for the review!

  2. There seem to be an increasing number of books out recently about medieval doctoresses. I finished Sarah Dunant's Sacred Hearts a couple months ago and loved it. I also liked The Mistress of Death series about another fictional medieval healer. The Book of Madness is on my To Be Read list.

  3. I love it when a story clicks and suddenly, it's worthwhile to continue reading, a treat of sorts! Thanks for the info, I may have to check it out!


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