I have to say—reluctantly, like I’m bad-mouthing a friend made of words and paper—that I found the first 30 pages or so of Regina O’Melveny’s debut novel, The Book of Madness and Cures, somewhat clunky. But like a good friend who made an awkward first impression, the book is well worth pursuing past that phase. Stick with it, for it opens up into a vividly imagined and alluring space, becoming a warm, thoughtful and sure-footed companion.
O’Melveny’s heroine, Gabriella Mondini, is a doctor during the Renaissance, a time when attempting to heal the sick could get a woman burned as a witch. Mentored by her physician father, Gabriella nonetheless brings her own keen instincts to the table, and, before her father left home with nary an explanation 10 years before the novel’s start, the pair treated patients together in Venice and were co-authoring an encyclopedic tome of diseases. When his sporadic, increasingly peculiar letters suddenly cease, and a local edict forbids her to practice medicine, 30-year-old Gabriella—who has begun to feel as insignificant as the window through which she stares—comes to an invigorating decision: she will set off across Europe and northern Africa to find her missing father. The trek that follows is life-changing, testing her mettle in the mountains, bringing her more than one chance at love and confronting her with heartbreak, guilt and the muddy question of when a quest becomes obsession.
The text has a gentle feel as it explores parenthood, gender, the consequences of leading and following and the two-sides/same-coin experience of human togetherness and solitude. O’Melveny’s poetry background shines through: walking a populated path on a foggy Holland morning is like being “alone in a pale room of indeterminate dimensions.” Lush scenic detail and the tenderness between Gabriella and her traveling partners—her former nursemaid Olmina, and Olmina’s husband, Lorenzo, who double as surrogate parents—make the journey a pleasure to follow. While her father’s descent into madness illustrates that we never really know the ones closest to us, Gabriella knows that one must comfort even when one cannot cure. This shared humanity at the heart of the novel is its brightest strength.