Review: The Book of Madness and Cures

The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny (2012)

When I’m critiquing a novel, I often feel self-conscious  After all, I’m not a published author.  Should I really be  judging other people’s talent based what I think I know about writing?  But while my so-called literary career has been short and uneventful thus far, I’d say I have a pretty solid career as a reader of books.

With that in mind, I’m going to say that The Book of Madness and Cures was underwhelming for a few important reasons.

But first – what is this book anyway?

As you may have deducted from the cover art, this is an historical novel.  It’s the story of Gabriella Mondini, a woman doctor living in Venice during the sixteenth century. Her father (also a doctor)  has been abroad for the past decade, researching his encyclopaedia of disease.  After his letters mysteriously stop arriving , Gabriella decides to leave Venice and retrace his steps across Europe and Northern Africa in order to find him and bring him home.  Along the way, she slowly uncovers a disturbing family secret linked to her father’s fate.

I do enjoy a good historical novel, and I thought the concept for this one was very interesting. Unfortunately, the execution was a bit shaky.

O’Meleveny’s first pitfall is one that’s  pretty common in historical fiction.  Good books in this genre find a balance between recreating  authentic dialogue and developing a writing style that will engage  contemporary readers. In The Book of Madness and Cures, the character’s voices often felt stilted and unnatural and this left them  a little devoid of personality.  Of course creating a sense of time and place is very important, but many of the exchanges in this novel felt very consciously directed at O’Melveny’s audience because they focused on explaining and emphasising aspects of renaissance life.  Obviously, this is something that two renaissance people would never do in their conversations.  I felt that the author spent too much time saying  ‘Look! Look! I did research!’ and as a resultI didn’t get to know Gabriella in a three-dimensional sense.

On a more positive note, O’Melveny’s descriptive language was often rather beautiful.  She used some very vivid and interesting imagery to bring all the places Ganriella visits to life.  The snapshots of renaissance life across Europe and Africa were a highlight, as was the exploration of the renaissance medicine, which seems an intriguing blend of science, imagination and superstition.

The conclusion was ultimately satisfying because it was a happy. Unfortunately, it was possibly a little too neat and rosy.  I felt that all the challenges that were promised for Gabriella – her vocation, her age (thirty was pretty old to be single in those days), her dangerous journey and the implications of the family secret didn’t materialise – or at least didn’t have a lasting impact on her life. All those loose ends were tied up very hastily in the epilogue so we didn’t get to explore the issues that attracted me to the story in the first place.

In the end, the book simply wasn’t very gripping. I actually found it quite difficult to finish because the plot didn’t  pick up until the last 50 pages or so. O’Melveny’s writing style is vivid and artistic but I think she gets bogged down in that rather than driving the story forward.  You can tell she’s a talented poet but ultimately, I don’t want to read 300+ pages of poetry when I was promised a novel.

So, I’ll respectfully say that The Book of Madness and Cures has some room for improvement.

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