Synopsis (from Amazon):
Gabriella Mondini is a rarity in 16th century Venice, she’s a woman who practices medicine. Her father, a renowned physician, has provided her entrée to this all-male profession, and inspired in her a shared mission to understand the secrets of the human body. Then her father disappears and Gabriella faces a crisis: without her father’s patronage, she is no longer permitted to treat her patients.
So she sets out across Europe to find her father. Following clues from his occasional enigmatic letters, Gabriella crosses Switzerland, Germany and France, entering strange and forbidding cities. She travels to Scotland, the Netherlands, and finally to Morocco. In each new land, she uncovers details of her father’s unexplained flight, and opens new mysteries of her own. Not just the mysteries of ailments and treatments, but the ultimate mysteries of mortality, love, and the timeless human spirit.
In recent months, I seem to have read several novels which have very similar features – 16th Century Venice; female doctors struggling to practice medicine under the bigoted rules of the time; traveling far from home – as a result, large parts of this debut novel felt familiar. There were aspects that set it apart, but it was, overall, much of a muchness with the others and although I enjoyed it, I got slightly less out of it than I might have done had I not read others first.
If anything, The Book of Madness and Cures felt a tad long-winded at times, and despite the excerpts of the titular book (actually The Book of Diseases) being part of the plot, I found their inclusion to be intrusive and disruptive to the flow of the story around them, so much so that I eventually found myself skimming over them to get back to the proper narrative.
It is a meandering tale that takes its time to unfold, so that it feels like the reader is keeping pace with the travelers as they spend months journeying through strange lands, facing hardship and persecution, on a voyage of self discovery and reunion that often feels like it will never come to a conclusion. When it finally does, it feels a little rushed. I felt that I cared for very few of the characters, least of all the absent father descending into madness as he tries to escape his own failings in foreign lands. Gabriella seemed emotionally stunted, and the only ones I really felt for were her companions, Olmina and Lorenzo, who were kind, loyal and understanding as Gabriella persisted in her quest.
The redeeming feature is the writing itself, which is warm and rich – O’Melveny has many a beautiful turn of phrase and her skill with words is to be commended. I will look forward to seeing what she next brings to the page.
Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite