We tend to think of the Renaissance as a flowering of arts, science and culture, and for a lucky few it was—but for the vast majority, of course, both in Europe and elsewhere, it was pretty much more of the same. Medicine was rudimentary, superstition and religious intolerance were rampant, racism and sexism were the order of the day, to say nothing of petty little concerns like infant mortality and life expectancy. Yes, a handful of European cities benefited from the genius of Michelangelo and the like, but this was very much the exception to the rule.
Debut novelist (and established poet) Regina O’Melveny gets this point across nicely in The Book of Madness and Cures, a historical novel that adeptly presents a picture of Renaissance-era Europe as seen through the eyes of its unlikely protagonist. Gabriella Mondini is a doctor’s daughter, and—unusually for the period—is also a doctor herself, gifted both in the minutiae of knowing which herbs alleviate what symptoms, as well as in the harder-to-quantify bedside skills possessed by the most gifted physicians.
A native of Venice, Gabriella runs into difficulty when the city council decides to strip her of her right to practice medicine due to her gender. Under ordinary circumstances, she would appeal to her learned and respected father to argue her case. Times are far from ordinary, though: Dottore Mondini senior has been absent these past ten years, communicating only erratically as his travels take him through the Continent, north into Scotland, then south to Morocco.
At about the same time as she is prohibited from practicing, Gabriella receives a letter which promises to be her father’s last. Alarmed by this, and fed up with life in a city that denies her her livelihood, Gabriella falls upon the rather impractical but (for us) thoroughly entertaining decision to strike out in search of her father. Her mother tries to dissuade her, but frankly, things have been a little tense between mother and daughter for some time now. Accompanied by a married pair of elderly servants, Gabriella sets out to recreate her father’s steps, in hopes of finding news of him or, better still, locating the man himself.
An astute reader (ahem) might ask at this moment: “Hey Gabriella, doesn’t it make sense to go to the last place your father wrote from, to try to pick up his tracks there—rather than retracing his steps along a trail that it already ten years old?” Well, best to keep such thoughts to yourself. (And anyway, if she followed such advice, the book would be over before page one hundred.) So Gabriella sets out in her father’s footsteps, through Italy and Germany and Holland, then Scotland, France, Spain and finally Morocco. Along the way she meets any number of colleagues of her father’s and experiences a variety of adventures both exceptional and mundane.
All this, of course, allows the author to show her skill at painting various images of the time and places involved, which is the whole point. Germany seems more than a little unfriendly, Holland somewhat less so, but still no great shakes, but Edinburgh is downright pleasant, notwithstanding the lousy weather. The chapters set in Morocco were surprisingly resonant of my own experience living there in the ‘90s.
Throughout it all, Melveny’s writing is smooth and evocative. Gabriella proves a likeable traveling companion, and her first-person narration keeps things moving along. “As we wound our way higher and higher into the mountains, with the peaks of the Pyrenei before us, my breath got larger,” she tells us. “The… twisting waters cleansed this world and offered something that couldn’t be imagined at lower elevations. The humors found their balance. No wonder the holy ones sought out the high places.”
Her companions, Olmina and Lorenzo, are rather crustier and more approachable, and leave the high-minded narrator to her ruminations. Nonetheless, some of the book’s most poignant moments concern the couple’s own adventures on this epic journey.
An intriguing element in the story is the book that Gabriella is compiling throughout, a massive tome called The Book of Diseases, which the reader is privileged to glimpse from time to time. Entries on such colorful and difficult-to-believe maladies as “Lapsus, A Predicament Where a Woman Abruptly Forgets Her Place of Origin and Conceives an Intense Longing for the World at Large” provide a change of pace from Gabriella’s voice, serving to spice the overarching narrative in unexpected ways and lending thematic resonance besides. It’s a bit like Oliver Sacks, transported to Renaissance Italy.
It’s easy to imagine the readership for this book. Literary-historical novels featuring strong women characters, often inhabiting that twilight zone between women’s space and men’s, are a staple of the current publishing scene, as attested by the success of such works as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring and Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus, not to mention books by writers like Sarah Waters, Jane Harris, and Rose Tremain. Readers fond of these writers will find much to enjoy in this colorful, picaresque tale.