The Book of Madness and Cures: A Novel

Image of The Book of Madness and Cures: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 3, 2012
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

The Book of Madness and Cures promises much but actually delivers little. . . . at least I think that’s a sex scene. But things were different back then.”

What is it about the good old days (in this case Europe in the late 16th century) that makes writers go all wonky when it comes to sentence structure and stilted when it comes to language?

In the case of poet Regina O’Melveny’s first novel The Book of Madness and Cures, one sentence tells a great deal.

Take this one:

“In illness his pulse jumped to my listening ear upon his chest.”

Or this:

“Olmo severed my braid the first night after Durlingen with a cooking knife and it fell heavily to the ground like a viper.”

The person who loses her braid so ungrammatically is one Gabriella Mondini of Venice. Known to her patients in that city of enlightenment as Doctor Mondini, daughter of the renowned physician who trained her.

One day, Doctor Mondini the Elder leaves Venice on a mysterious journey. After he fails to return, his daughter and her two most trusted servants follow, seeking to discover the cause both of his disappearance and of his failure to return.

To give us an idea of how Gabriella feels about leaving Venice, Ms. O’Melveny writes:

“Behind me the walls of Venetia—her palazzo, scuole, churches and convents, her infinite exquisite and horrific prisons—blurred with the swampy sea. She was truly a strange theater. For as much as travellers glorified her beauty and wealth, the delicious insubstantial semblances she put on, I know her as substantial, weighted, and hard. Stones, bricks, pilings driven into the clay. She stood against the vaporous and mutable sea that was always trying to claim her, and the best she could do was withstand it, toy with it for a while, Venetia, a dense accretion of lives, announced the solidity of those lives in a broad villa or narrowing passageway. In stone lions, parapets and empire. The water was always there.”

In short, she will miss the place.

And yet, go she must, for she is on a quest to find her daddy, who may or may not have descended into madness while journeying who-knows-where or why.

Luckily, Gabriella has a cache of letters from her Pa that happily all mention what country and town he is off to next and what doctor there he intends to visit. And so she follows from place to place, on sort of a scavenger hunt, as most of the folks she sees have objects to give her that her father has left behind—eyeglasses, shoes and the like. (Given his lack of these things as they rack up, one would think that a shoeless, blind old man would be fairly easy to find. But no.)

Travail strikes at every turn. And Gabriella learns the hard way that most of the world is not so sophisticated as Venice and that, in those parts of the world in which Christian conservatives have come into power, doctoring in a woman’s hands is equated with witchcraft, for which there is a rather stern penalty. (She also learns the hard way to avoid floods and to watch out for bears.)

In short, to extend the modern day metaphor for this election year: like many politicians, The Book of Madness and Cures promises much but actually delivers little. Never before have so many words said so little.

Perhaps I complain too much; there is that possibility. But what is it about historical fiction that immediately requires that fathers always refer to their girls as “Daughter” when addressing them in direct conversation? And why the crazy quilt sentence construction, with clauses apparently playing hide and go seek on the printed page?

And the sheer verbiage of it all. Henry James, in all his Victorian wisdom would declare these sentences are too long, too convoluted. And George Bernard Shaw would suggest a good edit.

For all of its lingua gloriosa, Madness is, at its heart, a romance novel, (not that there’s anything wrong with that—a good romance novel can be a joyful thing, but this one is trying to slip in under the guise of literary fiction, which—despite the verbiage—it is most definitely not) with the fetching Gabriella finding a new sailor in every port, most of whom follow her when she inevitably disappears from town during the night. This turns out to be a very bad idea in some cases; a very good idea in one in particular. Which is all to the good, because this is the guy with whom Gabriella shares perhaps the most underplayed sex scene in literature:

“Some women think of love as a rising thing, but I’d always known it as descent where I might lose myself or my beloved. A sweetness and then a severance greater than original solitude. And so, I feared joy. Yet there in the library, Hamish and I climbed the bright ladder of the body, as if it were sky and we a deafening twisting flock of birds that could never fall to earth.”

Or at least I think that’s a sex scene. But things were different back then.

Coincidences abound, the mail gets through no matter what or where, and, surprisingly, people on foot keep finding each other despite the size of Europe and Northern Africa and the time and energy it takes to cross them.

Gabrielle travels as a woman, a man, a doctor and, at one point, a patient. Hamish is, well, Hamish, a Scotsman good and true—or is he? After she’s climbed the “ladder of the body” with him, how will he treat poor Gabrielle in the morning? Will she stay to find out or will she disappear in the night? Is Daddy in Germany or France or Scotland or even Morocco? To tell would be to spoil it all for you, this picaresque book of madness, cures, ladders, poesy and hokum.

To read is to learn all.