Books

'The Book of Madness and Cures' Can Be a Bit Like Oliver Sacks, Transported to Renaissance Italy

"Lapsus, A Predicament Where a Woman Abruptly Forgets Her Place of Origin and Conceives an Intense Longing for the World at Large" and other such maladies spice this overarching travel narrative in unexpected ways, lending thematic resonance.


The Book of Madness and Cures

Publisher: Little, Brown
Length: 321 pages
Author: Regina O'Melveny
Price: $25.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2012-04
Amazon

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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image