In The Book of Madness and Cures, Regina O’Melveny takes us on a wide-ranging circuit of emotion and redemption, and we get a tour of the known world into the bargain. Set in 1590, this splendid debut novel follows the travels of young Gabriella Mondini from her native Venice all the way to Scotland, and thence to Morocco, all in search of her absented father, who is a doctor. This will reward the fortunate reader, who will learn how medieval physicians viewed illness and fevers, but more importantly, will get to follow Gabriella’s quest, where she encounters love, death, security, and life-threatening danger. Gabriella’s quest is important because it tempers her, it leads her to accept a final end to her wanderings, and affords her a closure she barely dreamed of at its outset.
Signorina Gabriella is actually Dottoressa Mondini, an insightful and compassionate physician in her own right, but the medical guild of her Venice home drums her out – women are not allowed to practice. If this were not enough, Gabriella hasn’t received a letter from her itinerant father for months, and she doesn’t know how long it took the last one to reach her. She sets out, bringing two beloved servants with her, and makes a daunting, almost heroic trip across Europe, with stops in northern Italy, southern France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scotland. At every stop, she meets doctors who knew her father, and they relate an ever-worsening picture. Increasingly, they think him unhinged, and she must play dogged detective until she finds herself in a small desert settlement in Morocco. I found the payoff here quite satisfying.
This denouement has everything: bewilderment and heartache, as well as acceptance, affirmation, and the promise of a full, rewarding life. This debut work promises brightly for its author, for the effects of fine fiction are here: deep and real characters, a plot framework that builds our interest and holds our sympathy. Ms. O’Melveny completes fiction’s oldest, and I consider most difficult tasks: she captures our hearts’ sympathy, and our minds’ discernment, with her wonderful first-person heroine. Lesser characters are also fully nuanced and believable, although not always so sympathetic.
The Book of Madness and Cures ultimately contains the story of Gabriella’s own “madness,” her questing, striving heart. Take this book up, for I know you will be as pleased as I was at the balm contained in it for us all.