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The Book of Madness and Cures: A Novel
by Regina O'Melveny

Published: 2013-06-18
Paperback : 352 pages
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A brilliant debut about a woman doctor in Renaissance Venice, forced to cross Europe in search of her father.
Gabriella Mondini is a rarity in 16th century Venice: a woman who practices medicine. Her father, a renowned physician, has provided her entrée to this all-male profession, and ...
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A brilliant debut about a woman doctor in Renaissance Venice, forced to cross Europe in search of her father.

Gabriella Mondini is a rarity in 16th century Venice: a woman who practices medicine. Her father, a renowned physician, has provided her entrée to this all-male profession, and inspired her at every turn. Then her father disappears and Gabriella faces a crisis: she is no longer permitted to treat her patients without her father's patronage. She sets out across Europe to find where-and why-he has gone. Following clues from his occasional enigmatic letters, Gabriella crosses border after border, probing the mystery of her father's flight, and opening new mysteries of her own. Not just mysteries of ailments and treatments, but ultimate mysteries of mortality, love, and the timeless human spirit.

Filled with medical lore and sensuous, vivid details of Renaissance life, THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES is an intoxicating and unforgettable debut.

Editorial Review

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As I stared at the unopened letter, I thought of the ways my life had shrunken
since the departure of my father ten years ago. I didn’t dream of many things
anymore, of traveling to distant countries, even with the rare—though ever-
declining—freedom I could claim as a woman doctor. As we say in Venetia, the
world comes to us to beg favor, and I consoled myself with this. Still I could see
even now my father’s kindly yet remote ash-brown eyes, his raven and carmine
robes, and as I held his letter a small voice that had long been silent within me,
spoke. Let me accompany you, Papà. Don’t leave me behind.
His previous letter had arrived from Scotia last year, where he expressed his
vague intention of traveling even further north to collect the powdered horn of
the unicorn-fish, a cure against lethargy. Or perhaps south to the torrid clime of
Mauritania or Barbaria, where he might find the rare bezoar stone that takes all
sadness into its density and renders lunacy its wisdom. As with the arrival of all
his letters over the years, I had marveled at these cures, at the riches his medicine
chest must contain by now— and wished deeply to see them for myself, to acquire
them for my own. But his words hid something I couldn’t quite name though
they crept like sighs under my breath. Words like lethargy, bezoar, sadness.

The pulverized horn, very rare and unstable in the light, must be retained in a dark bottle and used sparingly. While I question the origins of the so-called horn of the unicorn (who has ever seen such a creature?), I do not question its efficacy. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. Why does Gabriella leave her home, Venetia, for the unknown?
2. How does Gabriella’s view of her father change over the course of her journey?
3. What role does The Book of Diseases play in the novel? And what is the significance of the medicine chest?
4. Explore the possible interpretations of the quotes at the beginning of the novel and how they relate to one another and to the story.
5. In what ways do Gabriella’s companions Olmina and Gennaro guide or hamper her quest?
6. How do Gabriella’s disguises as a man alter her outlook on the world?
7. Who is healer and who is healed in The Book of Madness and Cures? Who is mad?
8. How does each place affect Gabriella as she travels from one destination to another? What happens when she goes from a city upon water to a city upon sand? Does the outer journey mirror the inner one?
9. Are there any parallels between the Renaissance theory of the four humors that must be balanced (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, and melancholic) and modern or alternative medicine today?
10. When Gabriella discovers a man chained inside the storeroom in Taradante, she is able to identify him as her father by their similarly shaped toes. What physical features or personality traits do you share with your loved ones?
11. How does Gabriella’s father’s death free her? Can you relate to her reaction—her acceptance and her sense of relief? When in your life have you lost something—a relationship, a loved one, a belonging or a dream—only to realize that loss has unshackled you?
12. What was your reaction to the ending of the book? Was it satisfying? Did it conclude the way you expected it to?
13. Gabriella’s father often told her “the patient owns the remedy.” What do you think this means?
14. On page 166 in the hardback copy, Vincenzo says, “We often flirt with the very thing we create…” He goes on to admit that he loves too much the beautiful bolts of cloth he sells, and then Gabriella realizes that she is single-minded to a fault. What would you say is simultaneously your weakness and your strength?
15. Time and time again, Gabriella must defend her worth as a female doctor and disguise herself as a man to ensure safe passage on her journey. When in your own life have you experienced prejudice, whether because of your gender or some other defining characteristic? How did you cope?

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "So-So"by mel29 (see profile) 11/19/12

I am in between liking and disliking the book. Being a poet, the author has some beautiful language in the book, but the plot was lacking any real action, the fake maladies created a distru... (read more)

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