Thursday, April 26, 2012

Review: The Book of Madness and Cures

Summary: Gabriella Mondini is a rarity in 16th century Venice: 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: she is no longer permitted to treat her patients, women who need her desperately, without her father's patronage. She sets out across Europe to find where-and why-he has gone. 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 probes the mystery of her father's flight, and open new mysteries of her own. Not just mysteries of ailments and treatments, but ultimate mysteries of mortality, love, and the timeless human spirit.

Filled with medical lore and sensuous, vivid details of Renaissance life, The Book of Madness and Cures is an intoxicating and unforgettable debut. -- Little Brown


When I read the description of THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES by Regina O'Melveny, I thought it sounded like a book that would be right up my alley. I enjoy the occasional historical fiction book, and I love the book's setting -- Venice in the 16th century. Plus, the main character is a female doctor who travels all over the Europe in search of her father so I figured the descriptions of the locations had the potential to be interesting; and it didn't hurt that the author is a critically acclaimed poet. I figured THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES would be a winner!

I really tried to appreciate this book, but I couldn't. Overall, it just wasn't a story that resonated with me. Was it because my expectations were too high? Maybe, but I honestly don't think so. THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES was one of those books that I had a hard time picking up after setting down -- there was nothing calling me back to the story. But it was also more than that. I just didn't think the plot was as tight as it could have been and the story didn't really flow for me.

I've dreaded writing this review because I always try to focus on what I did enjoy about a book. In the case of THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES, I'd have to say that it was the basic storyline and some of the prose. This novel truly had so much potential! Having a 16th century female doctor who travels across Europe, many times disguised as a man, could have been exciting and suspenseful; and at times, this story was. I was definitely intrigued by Gabriella's travels and the locales she visited, and I did appreciate some of the descriptions. There is no doubt that Ms. O'Melveny has a way with words, and I was quite impressed with much of her writing.

The real issue to me was that THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES was all over the place. I think the author must have had this spectacular idea for a novel, and she tried to incorporate all of her ideas into this one story. I could be totally off-base here, but I think she almost tried to do too much with this novel. I don't want to give too much away, but there are a few parts of this novel (and one in particular) that seemed to be going somewhere... and then they would just be dropped with absolutely no mention again. It was odd to me, but even worse, it was frustrating because I actually thought these parts had some potential to be very exciting.

In addition, the main character was working on a medical book with descriptions of ailments and possible cures. These brief essays were woven into the story, and I didn't really understand their placement. Maybe it was me, but it seemed kind of random. I guess I was looking for connections to the story, but I wasn't able to really find them.

And finally, I just didn't feel an affinity towards Gabriella and her quest at all. Gabriella was difficult for me to like, and I didn't really get a true understanding of her character and her actions. At times she showed great courage; and then there were other times when her behavior wasn't quite as consistent (i.e. the ending of the novel.) In summary, I think I just had a big issue understanding her overall motivations. Her desire and journey to find her father just seemed to be a little far-fetched. Perhaps, more character development at the beginning of the novel would have helped me to "buy" her intense desires.

It it with reluctance that I suggest THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES to a book club. There is a reading guide available with nine questions, but I have a feeling that my group would spend most of the evening dissecting the plot rather than discussing major themes. Some of the topics you might want to explore include father/daughter relationships, the role of women in the 16th century, travel, goals, and passion.

I don't want to sound cruel because I'm sure THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES will appeal to many readers. Unfortunately, I wasn't one of them.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.

8 comments:

Serena said...

Sounds like this one was a disappointment. That's a bummer when interesting story lines are dropped never to be picked up again.

bermudaonion said...

It sounds like this could have been edited better. I may just skip it.

Laura Fabiani said...

I was looking forward to reading this one but I'm not so sure anymore. Thanks for the honest review.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I agree, as you know - very disappointing! And definitely a big plot drop with the guy in the autopsy!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I've not seen too many people who liked this book so I think you are in good company. I think I would have felt cheated if I'd spent time to read it. Too bad because the premise is intriguing.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Have you read Noah Gordon's THE PHYSICIAN? It sounds kind of similar (medieval boy who discovers a talent for healing, trains with a barber-surgeon but longs to know true medicine, travels to the MIddle East to train, yet must pretend to be Jewish to be allowed to study in a Muslim setting). It's amazing.

I read it during exam week in college, and it was my oasis to return to.

Michelle Shannon said...

I felt the exact same way about this. I agree that it has SO much potential but just fell flat. I too did not appreciate the essays, and I never really appreciated any of the characters. So sad to see something with such promise not live up to that promise.

lsl_scrapper said...

I've seen this around and have been on the fence. It doesn't really seem like something that I'd 'click' with. I think I'm going to pass on it...unless my book club should choose to read it. Thanks for the review.