I am down with a good historical fiction about a strong woman, and The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny seemed to fit that bill. Set in the late 16th century, our “strong-willed Venetian woman” (according to the publisher) is shunned by the medical community in which she so longs to participate after her doctor father goes wandering off on some journey to … do something … write his book of illness I think (or is it her book?). Who knows. Anyway, 10 years later she gets a mysterious letter from her father in which he tells her, “Don’t follow me!” She of course follows his path and chaos ensues. Well, chaos for a 16th century woman.
I tried to like this book and there are some things I found attractive. First, as she is traveling she decides to continue her father’s work (or is it hers?) by creating entries on various maladies (mostly affecting women). Many of these passages are quite lovely and inventive. Second, the language is beautiful. You can tell that the writer is a poet. Writing like this points to O’Melveny’s love of the language:
“Sea people, then. Well, come in. Lake people aren’t so different. We both share the flux of the water, though we lake dwellers keep more to ourselves, I think. It’s the knowing of a place bound by mountains. While your water seems without end.”
That is a beautiful passage. It is gorgeous and seems “important”. But it is so not how people talk at any time period in history. Because of the strangeness of the dialogue and the bizarre malady descriptions, I kept thinking that these must be extended metaphors for something. When reading works with heavy symbolism sometimes you can overlook the things you don’t understand and just listen to the language or story, but I could never get over that hump with this novel. I found it hard to trust the story or connect with the characters. First, the journey seems completely artificial. A very intelligent woman goes on a journey and doesn’t start with where her father was last seen, which is actually close to Italy, but instead follows her father’s exact footsteps that he took over 10 years. On the journey people keep telling her that they haven’t seen her father in years. Well, of course they haven’t! Second, I started feeling disconnect in the references to the lost father. I kept wondering if he was a werewolf and I had inadvertently picked up historical fantasy again. Or was he just mad? Or was being a werewolf a metaphor for madness? What is it?
It is never a good sign when I am reading and the primary question I ask myself is “What the hell is going on?” Beautifully written, but not one I will ever pick up again.