The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny * Review

This book was not great but it was not bad either. So a solid 3.22 out of 5. The premise was wonderful, everything was ticking my biblio boxes – the gorgeous cover, the Renaissance setting, a strong female character in a man’s world, comparisons with Sarah Dunant and Tracy Chevalier – so where did it all go wrong? Well, the main problem for me was the extremely stilted prose.

“I’ve since come to believe that the world is populated by multitudes of women sitting at windows, inseparable from their surroundings. I myself spent many hours at a window on the Zattere, waiting for my father’s return, waiting for my life to appear like one of those great ships that came into the harbor, broad sails filled with the wind of providence…I’d grown transparent as the glass through which I peered, dangerously invisible even to myself. It was then I knew I must set my life in motion or I would disappear.”

I love historical novels and, if you toss in a bit of medicinal lore sprinkled with early treatments for madness, you’ve got this clinician drooling! I couldn’t wait to read about the adventures of Gabriella Mondini: a 16th century Venetian physician determined to practice medicine during the Renaissance, when doing so could be construed as heretical.

Remember, most gals in the 16th century used needles for needlepoint, not suturing wounds!

Gabriella’s unseemly interest in such manly things is tolerated by the physicians in Venice only because her father, a renowned physician, acts as her mentor. When he abandons her in pursuit of a personal quest, Gabriella is no longer permitted to practice the healing arts. The tale of her attempts to find her father, and complete their book of cures for madness, moves the story along. I could scarcely contain my excitement as I settled in for, what I was sure would be, a delightful read.

“The impetuous wind can ignite the fire or put it out.”

It really should have been. All the requisite pieces for a perfect story were there, yet, the story fell flat. I regret to say that it just did not pull me in. The dialogue, in general, was stilted and the interactions between mistress and servant were unrealistic for the Renaissance period.

“She’d always perceived the world to be against her. Happiness was never to be trusted. And yet I thought vaguely, neither was sorrow. Didn’t each come to season in the other?”

Interesting case histories of patients suffering from madness are interjected sporadically throughout the book. All-in-all, the clinical feel of the writing was such that it left me removed from the supposed distress of the protagonist. Still, this is a debut novel and O’Melveny certainly has talent. Her next book, I’m sure, will flow more freely.

“life is too short to read bad books.”

‘This debut novel from a prize-winning poet is an elegant portrait of a resolute woman who practices medicine in 16th-century Venice….O’Melveny has written a compelling drama with a strong female lead. The writing is superb, particularly when the author describes the exotic locales and ancient superstitions Gabriella encounters on her travels’ (Library Journal)

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