Gleaming like a miraculous city on the summer sea, sixteenth-century Venetia is the home of Signorina Gabriella Mondini, a girl who carries the onus of her father’s legacy as a doctor and one of nature’s healers. While Gabriella’s mother, Signora Alessandra, is left alone to lament her husband’s desertion, intent to twist the truth while refusing to concede some part in it, neither Gabriella nor Alessandra can overcome the rash words that provoke old sorrows.
With only her trusted peasant friend Olmina for company, Gabriella thinks of the ways her life has
shrunk since the departure of her beloved father ten years ago. As a small voice that has long been silent within her speaks--“let me accompany you Papa, don’t leave me behind"--Gabriella ponders her father's greatest accomplishment, his famous and infamous
Book of Diseases.
Doctor Mondini's previous letter from Scotia tells of the cures and riches contained in his medicine chest. His last letter with its faint whiff of rose attar has perhaps come all the way from Mauretania. Taking the letters and a small bottle full of ashes, Gabriella discovers that her father’s dates of arrival are useless in determining his whereabouts.
Gabriella craves another life, far from the ritualized allegations of heresy. Even with her ever-declining freedom, she can still claim to be one of the few woman doctors. But when the news comes that she
is no longer allowed to practice (the Guild of Physicians refuse to support her membership without the mentorship of her father), Gabriella is finally bought to the edge. Constrained by a surfeit of choices, Gabriella must now inhabit a world where she is either branded a witch or a whore.
While Gabriella’s angry, petulant mother refuses to negotiate her grating sadness, only Mondini’s volumes of diseases--the cruelty of sickness and the loss that is redeemed in healing--can usher Gabriella into a new life as she embarks on the search to find her father and convince him to return. Gabriella fails to heed Alessandra’s warning that she
will regret a journey that will only bring hardship. Accompanied by Olmina and her husband, Lorenzo, Gabriella sets off to Padua, watching her home recede for the last time, the walls of Venetia, the palazzo and scuole, the churches and convents of the city eventually blurred by the swampy sea.
In a journey of infamous encounters and striking locales, Gabrielle must learn to rely on the kindness of strangers
as she endures numerous dangerous liaisons. Traveling from Lake Costentz to Leiden and on to Edenburg and then to Algezer, Africa, Gabriella remains steadfast in her mission.
Rosemary, meadow-sweet and lemon balm prove to be excellent balms for sickness, madness and tangled grief,
but Gabriella finds herself limited as much by her own fears as the constraints of
Renaissance life. Kindly Widow Gudrun shares her green talent and her crotchety ways as Gabriella discovers that silent enemies are far and wide.
She must indeed be wary of ermine-cloaked noblemen who falsely greet her with kindness.
Spending her days reading over the maladies her father once struggled to comprehend, Gabriella prevails over unbelievable odds. Recreating sixteenth-century Europe in extraordinary grandeur, O’Melveny
allows her heroine to rely on her instincts, destined to discover true love and
move toward a new and vital sense of independence.