The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O'Melveny

When madness has no cure but a loving daughter. 

Serious synopsis of The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O'Melveny: Dr. Gabriella Mondini, a strong-willed, young Venetian woman, has followed her father in the path of medicine. She possesses a singleminded passion for the art of physick, even though, in 1590, the male-dominated establishment is reluctant to accept a woman doctor. So when her father disappears on a mysterious journey, Gabriella's own status in the Venetian medical society is threatened. Her father has left clues--beautiful, thoughtful, sometimes torrid, and often enigmatic letters from his travels as he researches his vast encyclopedia, "The Book of Diseases."

After ten years of missing his kindness, insight, and guidance, Gabriella decides to set off on a quest to find him--a daunting journey that will take her through great university cities, centers of medicine, and remote villages across Europe. Despite setbacks, wary strangers, and the menaces of the road, the young doctor bravely follows the clues to her lost father, all while taking notes on maladies and treating the ill to supplement her own work.

My two cents

The book in one sentence: A young Venetian woman and doctor seeks out her missing father and unwittingly discovers her father's secret and tragic past.

I won this book in giveaway over at I'd Rather Be Reading at the Beach (yeah, I really would! Thanks Vicki!). I have to admit, it's that gorgeous cover that got me. And when I read the synopsis, I felt it had shades of Tracy Chevalier and Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver.

This is a gorgeous book all around:
  • It's crammed with a rich historical story about a young Venetian woman who want practiced medicine -- then a rarity in a profession dominated and run by men. I have come away with a wonderful insight into the medical world of the 1600s (and a greater appreciation for female doctors being around now!)
  • Interspersed in the storyline are snippets of Gabriella's father's notes, and later her own, for "The Book of Diseases." These in itself are fascinating insights on how illness was perceived in the 1600s -- where what manifests itself as an ailment of the physical body or the mind and what physicians then attributed it to, often bordering on the obvious (according to today's science) an even to the mystical and magical. It reminds me how many things can remain unexplained even today despite technology. 
  • The language is languid and poetic. Sometimes I loved it, other times it honestly tired me out. 
  • The character of the father I felt was this book's saving grace -- this tortured soul stole Gabriella's thunder. The conclusion came to a satisfyingly tragic end. 

Uh-oh: While I wanted to like this book more, I couldn't for the life of me pinpoint why I didn't love it. I honestly did not feel for Gabriella. I don't understand why I couldn't empathize with her character more. While meant to exemplify strength of character and a strong woman of the time, my heart did not go out to her.

Verdict: A beautifully poetic historical fiction piece of healing and illness, of passion and madness, of how relationships can be tragedies in of themselves. Recommended for historical fiction buffs. 

Random quotes:
"I don't know where my own body begins or ends," said the young girl of Imizmiza. - p. 3

The hours of candlelight, encircled by a studious darkness, drew me closer to my intent. - p. 56

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O'Melveny
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© guiltless readingMaira Gall