The Book of Madness and Cures

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny
Little, Brown and Company (coming April 2012)

The Book of Madness and Cures is a surprisingly light read interspersed with morsels of setting and culture across Renaissance Europe.  There was a bit of suspension of disbelief while reading this novel.  Although it was typical of Italian Renaissance women from families of means to receive university educations comparable to their male counterparts, Gabriella Mondini possesses an almost unbelievable situation.  Her life-long mentorship under her father, Dr. E.B. Mondini, allows her to practice medicine.  She is not a midwife with underground cures; she is a physician in good standing.  Her situation appears more believable when her father leaves for extended travel, then disappears, and the local guild of physicians tightens a noose on her medical practice.

Although our culture is programmed to sympathize with the abandoned wife, Gabriella’s mother is a difficult woman to pity.  Introduced as a vain woman filled with contempt for her husband, she is constantly complaining about Dr. Mondini’s studies, his relationship with Gabriella, his unusual habits.  She appears to deserve her husband’s estrangement.

Despite her intellectual brilliance, Gabriella is emotionally stunted by her father’s departure. She is bound to him as a little girl, desperate for closure. Her need for answers is visceral; no tragedy will deter her search for answers.  We are housed by the past.  As she begins her search for her father, his leaving appears more complex.  From Padua to Leiden, then Edenberg and finally, Algezer, Gabriella encounters townspeople and her father’s former collegues, each with progressively disturbing accounts of her father’s behavior.  What is strange about the entire journey across the European continent and on to Africa is that Gabriella persists, unscathed by witch hunts, bandits and obstructive prejudice (although her traveling companions suffer differently).

Interspersed with the accounts of her journey are her father’s letters and anecdotes of the diagnosis and treatment of madness.  The range of mental infirmity in Gabriella’s day appears no different than today:  her melancholia for our depression, her lapsus for our dissociative disorder.  Interestingly, while this search for madness and cures thereof persists today, progress since Gabriella’s time appears lacking.  The reader may even prefer Gabriella’s humane and tender approach to mental fugue.

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