The Book of Madness and Cures

Written by Regina O’Melveny
Review by Richard Bourgeois

That this is a book of madness is immediately obvious; Doctor Ernesto Mondini has become unhinged. His final letter arrives in Venice from an unknown location – he wants no more contact with humanity and he will not be coming home. His daughter Gabriella, a physician in her own right, sets out to find him. But she does not search Europe so much as she dissects it. Her travels peel away layers of cold flesh, showing a world that celebrates the first stirrings of modern science even as it sends witches to burn at the stake. En route Gabriella assembles her own notes for the project she shares with her father, a comprehensive “Book of Diseases.” In it she describes fantastic, almost whimsical maladies of the body and mind that are simultaneously unbelievable and vividly real.

La Dottore herself is a wonderful character, a 16th-century woman through and through who just happens to be a highly skilled medical professional. She fits her intellect and passion to the rules of her time, hiding her true colors in a man’s doublet when she must and allowing herself to love only when it’s safe. She travels from one university town to another, collecting her father’s abandoned possessions and ever more dire tales from the men who knew him. Yet the complete picture of Ernesto Mondini’s “madness” is not one of despair; the “cure” is, of course, the journey. In the end I’m not sure it actually matters whether Gabriella finds her father or not.

This book is rich in historical flavor, and the language is gorgeous throughout. Each minor character is a fully developed picture of 16th-century life, with all its ignorance and beautiful hope. As for Gabriella, I’d follow her across any other continent she cares to dissect.