Regina O’Melveny had a great idea for a plot for her debut novel, and in better hands, The Book Of Madness And Cures might have been an adventure story and travelogue reminiscent of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. Unfortunately, weak writing makes it just a missed opportunity.
Set in 1590, the story follows Dr. Gabriella Mondini, a Venetian who sets off to pursue her father after he refuses to come home from a 10-year voyage across Europe to research a book on diseases. The fact that she waited a decade to chase down her father makes her urgency unintentionally absurd as she pursues her quest across Renaissance Europe. Tracing his letters through Germany, Scotland, Switzerland, and Morocco, she encounters mysteries and tragedies like a village that has lost its entire female population to a witch hunt, and a medical student who winds up publicly dissected after being robbed and murdered, but she never stops to get involved. Other plots are mentioned once, then quickly abandoned, like the possibility that Gabriella has some sort of healing powers beyond her knowledge of medicine. It’s frustrating, since those plotlines seem so much more interesting than the ones O’Melveny does focus on, which largely involve Gabriella’s romantic interests and her obsessively repeated questions about whether her father has gone mad, and whether she’s mad herself for following him.
O’Melveny’s attempts to capture the voice of a Renaissance doctor make for particularly dull, clinical narration. The book is filled with overly long metaphorical descriptions like “The whole chapel nested inside the hewn cave of its older form, the way we are housed by the past when we think we are creating something new.” Stilted dialogue like “God, who speaks in the beehive, has many riddles, and why shouldn’t we be one of them?” keeps the characters from ever feeling real, making it hard to empathize with them enough to come to grips with the emotional passages.
As Gabriella travels, she works on compiling her own version of her father’s book. The novel is peppered with descriptions of nonsensical maladies she claims to have cured, including a woman with a severe hatred of spring, whom Gabriella treated by secretly feeding her flowers. Or an affliction of particularly quiet people, which makes them cry tears so black, they can be used as ink. Their weird, not-quite-fantasy, not-quite-historical-fiction nature only further muddles a book that has too many ailments of its own.