THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES

Poet O’Melveny’s darkly whimsical first novel follows a 16th-century Venetian doctor as she travels across Europe in search of her father.

Gabriella’s physician father taught her his craft, and they practiced medicine together before he left Gabriella and her depressed, paranoid mother 10 years earlier, supposedly to gather material for his great project, The Book of Diseases. He has written letters over the years, but their frequency has dwindled; now, in 1590, he writes that he will not be returning. As a female doctor, she has been restricted to treating only women, but now the Guild of Physicians denies 30-year-old Gabriella her right to practice medicine at all. So with her loyal maidservant Olmina and Olmina’s trusted husband Lorenzo, Gabriella bids a testy farewell to her harridan of a mother and departs Venetia in search of her father. She brings her medicine trunk, her father’s letters and the pages from her father’s book about mysterious ailments like solar madness and the malady of mirrors. She visits Padua, where her father’s friend hints at her father’s tendency toward madness. She passes as a man through villages in Bavaria, where most of the women have recently been burned as witches. She steals back some of her father’s papers from a Bavarian professor. In Scotland she meets Hamish, a doctor who knew her father. He arranges for her to treat some patients, although for all the talk of medicine Gabriella is never shown doing much actual healing. She and Hamish are drawn to each other, although their romance may strike readers as lukewarm. Unaware that she is pregnant, she leaves without telling him, but he stalwartly follows her to Tangier until her search ends. Along the way Gabriella becomes less sure of the boundary between devotion and obsession. She faces dangers both from nature and men. There are deaths. There is sex. But mostly there is pretentious talk. O’Melveny writes with rococo flourish, but Gabriella’s journey becomes a slog.

 

Pub Date: April 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-316-19583-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 5, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2012

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

CODE NAME HÉLÈNE

A historical novel explores the intersection of love and war in the life of Australian-born World War II heroine Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Lawhon’s (I Was Anastasia, 2018, etc.) carefully researched, lively historical novels tend to be founded on a strategic chronological gambit, whether it’s the suspenseful countdown to the landing of the Hindenberg or the tale of a Romanov princess told backward and forward at once. In her fourth novel, she splits the story of the amazing Nancy Wake, woman of many aliases, into two interwoven strands, both told in first-person present. One begins on Feb. 29th, 1944, when Wake, code-named Hélène by the British Special Operations Executive, parachutes into Vichy-controlled France to aid the troops of the Resistance, working with comrades “Hubert” and “Denden”—two of many vividly drawn supporting characters. “I wake just before dawn with a full bladder and the uncomfortable realization that I am surrounded on all sides by two hundred sex-starved Frenchmen,” she says. The second strand starts eight years earlier in Paris, where Wake is launching a career as a freelance journalist, covering early stories of the Nazi rise and learning to drink with the hardcore journos, her purse-pooch Picon in her lap. Though she claims the dog “will be the great love of [her] life,” she is about to meet the hunky Marseille-based industrialist Henri Fiocca, whose dashing courtship involves French 75 cocktails, unexpected appearances, and a drawn-out seduction. As always when going into battle, even the ones with guns and grenades, Nancy says “I wear my favorite armor…red lipstick.” Both strands offer plenty of fireworks and heroism as they converge to explain all. The author begs forgiveness in an informative afterword for all the drinking and swearing. Hey! No apologies necessary!

A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54468-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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