Whether it is a dark and magical romp as in The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern or a hard-hitting scifi war novel as in The Forever War, I’ve definitely been spending most of my time immersed in fantastical worlds. So, in an effort to diversify, I’ve chosen other fiction or nonfiction titles amid a run of scifi/fantasy ones. How’s it working out? Not so great. Maybe it’s me or maybe it’s the books I’ve selected but overall my recent experiences branching out have been a bit lackluster.
My latest selection was The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny. To be honest, it sounded just like the kind of book I’d enjoy. It centers around Dr. Gabriella Mondini, a formidable young women who (gasp) practices medicine in 16th century Venice under the mentorship of her father who is also a physician. Ten years into an extensive journey, her father writes her letter stating he never plans to return home. Not only has her father abandoned her, but without his mentorship, her position in the medical world is threatened by those less than enlightened male doctors. Therefore, she decides to set a course to find her father and bring him home. The remainder of the book follows her exploits as she zigzags across Europe.
A woman doctor bucking the system in a male dominated establishment way before the bra-burning Women’s Lib took effect 400 years later! This is my kind of lady. It really should have been a great read.
Unfortunately, I was never able to really connect to the work. I had read some reviews warning that the plot was slow-moving but most agreed it was well worth it–though for me, I really wish I had heeded my own internal warnings and cut my losses about 1/3 of the way in.
Don’t get me wrong. The book is beautifully written–all accounts are lyrical, whimsical, and poetic. The medical details and historical contexts are very well done. Part of the plot revolves her undertaking to complete a book about various maladies and cures. I found it interesting to learn about early medical treatments for mental disorders and to discover how the medical field viewed mental illness in the 1590s…the causes were varied, some even believed melancholy was derived from a blue moon. These simple, superstitious beliefs are truly representative of early medicine and this author’s ability to showcase these ideas is wonderful.
However, the book contains absolutely no real action. Everything interesting that happens is described rather than shown. So many great moments felt stilted and cold because I couldn’t identify with the main character or her plight. She is a woman traveling alone (except for a couple of servants) during a very dangerous time in history–religious inquisitions, witch trials, and women’s rights abuse just to name a few things. Several times she has to pose as a man to avoid all manners of harm. Horrible tragic events happen to her and those around her. Yet the troubles are not palatable. Often, I found myself thinking “well that sucks” and moving on without any further consideration. I really, really wanted to love this book. I just didn’t. That said I have no doubt there are people who loved this book and had trouble putting it down.
To give this book a read, you can find it at any of your local online retailers including Amazon, B&N, and iTunes: