The Book of Madness and Cures tells the story of Gabriella, a female doctor in 16th century Venice. She has gained success under the mentorship of her father, a famous physician, but he has been away for ten years, on a journey to collect material for a comprehensive Book of Diseases. His latest letter informs Gabriella that he does not intend to return. Without her father to sponsor her, the guild of physicians expels Gabriella, and she leaves Venice on a journey to find him. Accompanied by two loyal servants, she follows the mysterious clues in her father’s infrequent letters. Her journey takes her through Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, France, Spain, and eventually to Morocco. On the way, Gabriella meets with people who have seen her father, and she comes to realize that he may be slowly losing his mind. She decides to continue her father’s work on the Book of Diseases, and the narrative is interspersed with Gabriella’s desciptions of various diseases and cures that she discovers along her journey.
This is poet Regina O’Melveny’s first novel, and she describes Gabriella’s travels in beautiful, lyrical prose. Renaissance Europe and northern Africa come to life in vivid detail, and the novel provides a fascinating insight into what it was like to be one of the few women physicians of the time. Women who practised medicine were often accused of witchcraft, and Gabriella runs into this danger at several stages of her journey, and she also is forced to travel in male disguise at times. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in historical fiction or the history of medicine.
The Book of Madness and Cures can be checked out from the Hatcher Graduate Library.