cover image The Book of Madness and Cures

The Book of Madness and Cures

Regina O’Melveny. Little, Brown, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-19583-6

Poet O’Melveny’s debut fiction is like a lyrical composite creature—part father/daughter epistolary novel, part aristocratic diary, part adventurer’s travelogue, and part compendium of allegorical diseases. When 16th-century Venetian doctor Gabriella Mondini is barred from practicing medicine, she sets off across Europe in search of her father, a respected doctor who left under mysterious circumstances 10 years ago to gather material for his Book of Diseases. As a rare female doctor, Gabriella needs his mentorship, but his letters have grown increasingly incoherent; as she follows his route, she hears disturbing stories about his erratic behavior. Forced to cut off her distinctive red hair, she travels as a man through villages empty of women and girls after mass witch burnings. Her own adventures begin to rival the tales in her father’s letters as she encounters suspicion, condescension, respect, and even romance. Gabriella’s father continues to elude her, and she must face the possibility that she no longer knows where to find him. Yet she cannot resume her own life until she does. Gabriella’s servants Olmina and Lorenzo accompany her and act as a pair of Sancho Panzas, providing mild salt-of-the-earth comic relief when not worn down by a yearning for home. By the time Gabriella reaches Morocco, where she believes her father to be, she too yearns for the comforts of Venice. But she has changed in ways that will greatly complicate her return. Readers will be delighted by O’Melveny’s whimsical embellishments, though veterans of historical fiction may balk at the poetic, metaphor-laden prose and fancifully piebald construction. Maps. Agent: Daniel Lazar, Writers House. (Apr.)