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The Book of Madness and Cures: A Novel [Hardcover]

Regina O'Melveny
2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 10 2012
Dr. Gabriella Mondini, a strong-willed, young Venetian woman, has followed her father in the path of medicine. She possesses a singleminded passion for the art of physick, even though, in 1590, the male-dominated establishment is reluctant to accept a woman doctor. So when her father disappears on a mysterious journey, Gabriella's own status in the Venetian medical society is threatened. Her father has left clues--beautiful, thoughtful, sometimes torrid, and often enigmatic letters from his travels as he researches his vast encyclopedia, The Book of Diseases.

After ten years of missing his kindness, insight, and guidance, Gabriella decides to set off on a quest to find him--a daunting journey that will take her through great university cities, centers of medicine, and remote villages across Europe. Despite setbacks, wary strangers, and the menaces of the road, the young doctor bravely follows the clues to her lost father, all while taking notes on maladies and treating the ill to supplement her own work.

Gorgeous and brilliantly written, and filled with details about science, medicine, food, and madness, THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES is an unforgettable debut.

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"Regina O'Melveny's debut novel, THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES, is a marvelous, inventive story of a singular courageous woman on a quest to find her missing father. Set in the Renaissance, it explores the wonders, and dangers, of Europe and Asia Minor and recreates a world--exotic and familiar, sensuous and beguiling--where a defiant woman, practicing the ancient healing arts, is believed to be contrary to the laws of God and Man."—Kathleen Kent, author of The Traitor's Wife and The Heretic's Daughter

"....[A]n elegant portrait of a resolute woman who practices medicine in 16th-century Venice...The writing is superb, particularly when the author describes..exotic locales and ancient superstitions. The book will especially attract readers who enjoy female­ centered historical novels whose plots are not driven by romance."—Lucy Roehrig, Library Journal

"[Gabriella Mondini's] journey is conveyed with earthy and sensual brio [and] clearly well-researched evocations of time and place, and...poetical description....You will love this adventure."—Elle Magazine

"Poet O'Melveny's debut fiction is like a lyrical composite creature-part father/daughter epistolary novel, part aristocratic diary, part adventurer's travelogue, and part compendium of allegorical diseases...Readers will be delighted by O'Melveny's whimsical embellishments."—Publishers Weekly

"[A] picaresque fiction debut...a provocative window into early medical pronouncements on everything from depression to claustrophobia..."—Jan Stuart, The Boston Globe

"O'Melveny's writing is smooth and evocative. Gabriella proves a likeable traveling companion, and her first-person narration keeps things moving along....Readers will find much to enjoy in this colorful, picaresque tale."—David Maine, Popmatters

"Gorgeously written, and filled with details about science and medicine, this is an unforgettable debut novel."—Tara Quinn, Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Infused with the sensuous places and metaphorical natural world that recur in [O'Melveny's] poetry..."—Anne Gray Fischer, Ploughshares

"Intriguing.... Every new chapter brings a new adventure and a new piece of the puzzle."—Claire Rivero, The Washington Independent Review of Books

"Reminiscent of The Red Tent, Anita Diamant's book-club favorite..."—Susannah Meadows, The New York Times

"[A] darkly whimsical first novel..."—Kirkus Reviews

About the Author

Regina O'Melveny's poetry has been published widely in literary journals, garnering several prizes. She grew up at the edge of pungent chaparral in La Mesa, California, and chose to enroll at Callison College--a school of International Studies at the University of the Pacific--almost solely based upon the fact that the second year would be spent in India. Thus began her many extended travels that would later inspire The Book of Madness and Cures, her first novel. She lives in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.

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2.0 out of 5 stars Slow and dull Nov. 20 2013
By pixie
Format:Hardcover
I can't even finish this book. It's so boring, and usually I adore historical fiction. The main character initially interested me because she's a physician during Renaissance Italy. But the long-winded descriptions, depressing events and lack of plot simply don't carry it along. Maybe I'll keep trying to finish it because I don't like giving up before the end. But I have to force myself to read it.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Far Too Slow Getting Started May 23 2012
Format:Hardcover
As a lover of historical fiction, I was excited to find a book set in the Renaissance that included so many different countries. I was looking forward to seeing the vast differences in cultures throughout Europe during this time period and the experience of travel, particularly for a woman accompanied only by servants. The cultures were not filled out as much as I would have hoped, but the travel was fairly detailed. They experienced enough danger and adventure to make it believable and keep the story alive.

The story was very slow to get going and I found it difficult to keep reading. The writing was choppy, descriptions were long and at times tedious and I found it hard to believe some of the situations the characters found themselves in. There were parts of the story that I'm not sure were very accurate for the time period. However, I found the inserted notes on maladies and their 'cures' interesting. Looking at medicine through the eyes of a sixteenth-century doctor gave me a better idea of what life would have been like for the physically and mentally ill'it's not a pretty picture.

Eventually the book became easier to read and by the end I was starting to enjoy it. That point came too late for me and I cannot see myself reading it again.

I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

I received this book free from Hachette Book Group. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.3 out of 5 stars  59 reviews
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Slow Historical Awakening May 5 2012
By Ethan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Gender equality has always been an important issue. Even with today's increased opportunities, the fact remains that women are not always afforded the same chances that men receive. This longstanding struggle was even more common in the 16th century, where author Regina O'Melveny sets her debut novel.

Dr. Gabriella Mondini is a rarity in Venice. While most women live more common lives, she has been afforded the chance to study medicine with her father, who is a well-respected doctor in is own right. Even though the guild of medicine is comprised entirely of men, her father has always done everything possible to ensure that his daughter becomes the best doctor she can be. When her father leaves the home to research maladies and cures to be published in his massive medical resource, The Book of Diseases, he leaves Gabriella to continue the family's medical practice.

Years later, Gabriella is still home, facing mounting disapproval from the medical guild, while her father continues his mysterious journey, sending letters that leave minimal clues to his activities or whereabouts. When, one day, she receives a letter from her father stating that he plans to continue his research with no intentions of ever returning home, Gabriella, despite her mother's warnings, sets out to find her father and convince him to return.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. Certain aspects worked extremely well. O'Melveny paints an accurate portrait of a young woman's struggle to reach her true potential. Set in the late 1500's the medical details, historical contexts, and character interactions are all fantastic. At times, however, I felt that the language of the novel got in the way of an otherwise intriguing story. The sections meant to portray the entries in the ongoing Book of Diseases seemed to be inserted in the middle of the plot, making the story a bit choppy. Overall, I think fans of historical fiction, mysteries and strong female lead characters will really enjoy this novel. Despite its setbacks, the story is strong enough to make this worth the read.
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Impressive novel debut from an award winning Poet! April 1 2012
By Noelle the Dreamer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
How to describe this brilliant description of a 16th Century Venetian woman who happens to be a doctor? I have just finished reading Regina O'Melveny's intriguing debut in fiction writing and find myself at a loss for words!

There is earthly appeal in Gabriella Mondini, this unusual young woman who yearns to practice medicine at an epoch where women of similar social status were rarely seen even out of the home.
The human body study during the Renaissance was a fascinating subject, involving much debates in universities and physicians homes and often criticism (even persecution) as it involved the need for specimens.

The idea of a wealthy 16th Century Venetian woman, a full fledged physician forbidden to practice because of her sex, willing to leave the comforts of home in search of the father she has not heard of in ten years, solely armed with a medicine chest and accompanied by two loyal servants to venture into terra ignota captivates the imagination.

My ARC copy galvanized me to experience this intriguing book fully (I dropped everything else) and I can tell you I was mesmerized by the author's readers address . To be introduced to Regina's inspiration whilst she penned this novel was in itself a rare opportunity to understand the concept behind the story and I recommend readers to check it out before starting the first chapter!

Gabriella's journey to find her missing father will see her crossing Europe, taking her from Venice to lake Costentz, Leiden, Edenburg and to Algezer, Africa.
With infinite care Regina O'Melveny allows readers to visualize a world we have only perceived through the accounts of merchants such as Marco Polo. She does not loose readers in tedious details, allowing readers to fully concentrate on the protagonists.

Gabriella does not follow the well trodden commerce road we know as the Spice route. Instead she uses cues taken from cherished letters, some many years old, to find the man she calls Father, also a physician.
Perhaps most appealing of all are the medical lore and excerpts of the book of Diseases Gabriella strives to compile, with her father's notes as well as her observations. These are at times remarkably accurate, others will leave you chilled or perhaps bring a chuckle.

As we follow her footsteps to discover the whereabouts of her father we begin to grasp Gabriella's hope and despair, and her determination to find the reason for her father's long absence. Despite misgivings and losses she continues her journey.

One might observe that Regina intuitively knew how to describe the vivid details of this compelling story thanks to her own upbringing.
'...It began with a small cloth journal decorated with volutes of red roses, sent to me when I was ten by my Italian grandmother, whom I'd never met. It had a lock...' My favourite of all her quotes!

In the end, this is a story to be experienced with an open mind, not unlike a cup of tisane, made of newly gathered herbs from a sunny spot of one's garden. Each sip brings you a different taste...
Imagination will be your constant companion!

Excellent and well worth 5 stars!

I received this ARC free from the HACHETTE GROUP as part of their blogger review program.
I am disclosing this in accordance with the FTC 16 CFR, Part 255 'Guides concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising. I was not asked to write a positive review and all opinions expressed are entirely my own.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wish I'd listened to the other reviewers. Sept. 26 2012
By Zinnia - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Previous reviewers noted that this book was slow with trudging, ponderous plot. But I was taken by the concept--an adventure during an exciting time in history and science from a female perspective. I kept waiting for the plot to pick up but--YAWN--it never did! Plod, plod, plod through Europe visiting her father's old friends and having a few flirtations on the way. Flirtations that result in unrealistic devotion: Both men follow her. One meets an oddly horrible end. Also, the heroine wasn't very likeable. I think she's supposed to be determined and perhaps a bit obsessed. But I found her lack of gratitude and concern for her family, servants, friends, and even animals annoying and tiring. Anyway, I came out of it with a new philosophy: Life is too short to plod through books I don't like!
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not easy to engage with, but beautiful writing April 28 2012
By Keris Nine - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Amounting to little more than a Venetian doctor's daughter travelling across 16th century Europe on a search for her missing father, The Book of Madness and Cures may not have a lot going for it in terms of narrative drive, but Regina O'Melveny's writing is beautiful, with some poetic, insightful and learned turns of phrase and a fine evocation of the wonders and dangers of the Renaissance period. What also makes the book compelling reading is the female perspective, since the dangers are even more pronounced for a woman travelling alone (with only some servants), but her various encounters along the journey across Europe and the medical conditions she writes about also provide an insight into those mindsets of the period and the distinctions between how men and women are treated.

Gabriella herself is an educated woman, a scholar who is literally following in her father's footsteps, adding her own contribution to the encyclopedic Book of Diseases that her father has been compiling all his life for the advancement of medical science. If there is little new or of interest in the descriptions of Gabriella's brief stays as she passes through the major centres of learning in Europe - other than a near run-in with a witch hunt, the expected encounters with thieves, lecherous men, romantic interests and adverse weather conditions are unexceptional - Gabriella's contributions to her father's study is much more intriguing, taking her down surreal paths in her documentation of rare diseases like The Plague of Black Tears, Solar Madness and Invidia. While she may not contract these afflictions herself, Gabriella's own experiences along the way allow her to relate to many of the symptoms.

The pleasures of The Book of Madness and Cures might not be the typical ones of seeing a plot or characters develop or progress in a conventional way through adversity, but such rich allusions cover this ground in a much subtler way that is fitting with the period, the language and the style of the period. It's there also in how Gabriella's correspondence from her father rarely speaks directly of their relationship, but somehow captures the same drives (and perhaps even madness) that propels both of them on a seemingly foolhardy quest. If the richness of the writing and the subtle delving into character isn't enough on its own, the beautiful ending brings everything together into an appropriate and perfect conclusion.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Hope Disappointed (Warning: Plot Spoilers!) Aug. 30 2012
By arielkprice - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The narrator is Gabriella Mondini, a thirty-year-old doctor in 16th century Venice. She has been trained by her father, a respected but eccentric physician. Gabriella faces much opposition as a woman trying to pursue what other Venetian physicians consider a man's calling. When the book begins, Gabriella's father has been traveling abroad for many years researching cases of diseases, which he hopes to collect and publish in a Book of Diseases. But suddenly her father's letters stop and without the help of her father, Gabriella's career is in jeopardy. She decides to travel to every city she received a letter from to find clues about what happened to her father.

Essentially, the entire novel is spent following Gabriella to several cities throughout Europe. She takes along her two servants, Olmina and Lorenzo. I think these were meant to be endearing characters, and Lorenzo sometimes was, but on the whole, they were just boring. Unfortunately, I was rather underwhelmed by the account of the bear killing Lorenzo, and I was relieved when Olmina returned to Venice. They were not missed, though Gabriella seemed to miss them. Each time the reader is informed that Gabriella feels a strong emotion, I was surprised, because I did not share that supposedly strong emotion. Despite being a first-person narrative, the reader remains wholly distanced from Gabriella and does not take part in her emotional experiences.

At each city Gabriella receives more hints that her father has become sick and is actually mad. This suspicion is pretty well confirmed before she even finds her father, so that by the time we do finally find him locked up like an animal so that he can't hurt himself, I am wondering what the point of the whole journey was.

The redeeming quality of the book was its rich discussion of ancient medicines and the humors. Throughout the novel we get to read entries in the Book of Diseases. Each entry includes a story--always about a woman--who suffers what appears to be not only a physical illness, but an emotional one. However, we never actually get to the bottom of the emotional illness. Gabriella is interested in herbal remedies, something that the other doctors consider indicative of black magic. When Gabriella and her companions come to Tubingen (Germany), she is warned that there have been many witch-hunts there. Of course, I interpreted this information as foreshadowing a delicious scandal for the leading lady. But she easily disguises herself and makes it through Tubingen without even running into a possible witch-hunter, which I found greatly disappointing.
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