Michelle Lovric, The Remedy (ReganBooks, 2005)

 

I read and gave a positive review to Lovric's last novel, The Floating Book, so I gladly volunteered to read The Remedy when it arrived at the Green Man offices. Although I found reading this one an entertaining and generally enjoyable experience, I would say that it didn't work quite as well for me as her earlier offering.

Like The Floating Book, The Remedy is an historical novel. This one is set in the magical and watery city of Venice and the crowded and dirty city of London. With the exception of two background sections, which take place in 1768 and 1769, respectively, the rest of the novel takes place in a relatively compressed time period, from late November 1785 to March of the following year. One of the ways I have come to characterize historical novels is by the extent to which they are grounded in a real historical context. I made use of this schema in preparing another review that included two books with noteworthy similarities to this one: Emma Donoghue's Life Mask and Ross King's Domino. Like the latter novel, The Remedy uses the historical period as a setting, but doesn't make any direct references to historical figures or events. One of the characters, for example, complains about taxes as a way to justify his shady business practices, but doesn't mention King George III or the American Revolution in this context, even though you would expect any businessman of the period to have more than a passing acquaintance with the rationale for the taxes. Lovric admits in her brief historical notes that all of her major characters and situations are her own inventions, although some of them are at least loosely based on actual historical referents.

The Remedy features three major characters, whose evolving relationships with each other form the central plot line. The first character we meet is a female writing about her harrowing experiences in a Venice convent, where her aristocratic parents sent her for bad behavior -- we find out quite late in the novel from another character what the bad behavior was. The convents of Venice played a role in The Floating Book and in The Cloud Machinery, another Venice novel I've read and reviewed. Although she has several different names during the course of the novel, it's easiest at this point to call this character by the name she is given when she leaves the convent, Mimosina Dolcezza. When we encounter her sixteen years later, she's working as an actress, but that's really a cover for her work as a spy for a group of Venetian businessmen and high-ranking government officials, about whom we never learn very much except that they are not very nice. It's evident that this woman's very survival depends on her ability to present herself in whatever light seems most favorable at the moment, so the fact that she tells her story in her own voice leaves me occasionally wondering whether she's telling me the whole truth about herself. This is especially the case because her accounts on some events differ a bit from those given by other characters.

The second character we meet is in my mind the most sympathetic, although he's no saint. The first time we encounter Valentine Greatrakes (Lovric insists this is a real name -- it's certainly a name that Charles Dickens could have used for a character!), he is grieving for the loss of his friend and business partner Tom, who was murdered in Venice. As a way of diverting his attention from this terrible news, Greatrakes attends a theatrical production, where he sees Mimosina on stage and falls for her -- hard! All of Greatrakes' sections of The Remedy are told in third person, and we get precious little background on him. He's the shady but highly successful businessman I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. He markets numerous vile and largely ineffective (if not downright lethal) nostrums, what would later be called patent medicines, and does a little smuggling on the side, to avoid all those nasty duty taxes. He's Irish (although you'd hardly know that from the way he talks), tall and good-looking, very working class but with lots of street smarts, and remarkably kind-hearted and decent, considering his work and his environment. At least that's what we see of him, most of the time. A hint that he may have achieved his business success through ruthless behavior emerges when he sees Mimosina in the company of another man, a Lord and Member of Parliament. Unable to challenge his rival to a duel because of the difference in their social statuses, he resorts to having the man killed by a band of cutthroats in his employ. 

The third major character is Pevenche, the overweight and obnoxious adolescent daughter of the murdered Tom and an unidentified mother. After her father's death, Pevenche becomes the ward of kindly and generous Greatrakes, and does a good job of milking that relationship for all it's worth. She gets to contribute a few chapters in her own voice, and we get further impressions of her from Greatrakes and from Mimosina, once the two meet. Of course the two women are furiously jealous of each other, since Pevenche for a while nurses a crush on 'Uncle Valentine'. One of the novel's supposed mysteries is Pevenche's maternal lineage. Hardly took me any time to figure that one out!

The book's title, The Remedy, refers to several variants on the theme of healing. Lovric seems to have a great deal of fun playing with this theme. We have Valentine's nostrum business, naturally. He also keeps getting sore throats and other afflictions that require treatment, sometimes with his own medicine. Then there's the love-sickness that afflicts him most grievously. Mimosina needs serious healing, both from the trauma she apparently experienced in the convent and from the obvious stress of leading a double life for the past sixteen years. She also seems to have a great deal of knowledge about various healing potions -- she probably knows about the ones that kill, too, although she never admits that. Pevenche could stand to lose weight and get a personality transplant, but in the end she finds her healing in another way. Some of the book's most entertaining passages show a very skilled nostrum salesman, a Scotsman who calls himself Dottore Velena, hawking his wares to the crowds in Bankside, not far from Greatrakes' warehouse.

As if to carry this theme to an even greater degree of excess, Lovric starts each of the book's short chapters with a remedy, a recipe for a medicine taken from a book published in 1710 that includes a statement about its use in treating some condition. Here's one of the shorter ones, to give you a taste (at least figuratively!):

A Cordial Epithem

Take Queen of Hungary's Water 6 drams; compound Spirits of Lavender, Spirit of Saffron, each 2 drams; Apoplectic Balsam 1 scruple; Oil of Cloves 10 drops; mix.

It's a proper prescription against swooning Fits and palpitation of the Heart. But it is not agreeable to Hysteric Women, because of its perfume, which few of them can bear.

In my day, I've done my share of herbal studies, and I am quite familiar with the use of plants for healing. But the language of these recipes is archaic, and many of the ingredients -- and conditions -- are completely unfamiliar. That's likely to be a problem for some readers. I would also say that sometimes the remedies tie into their respective chapters quite nicely, either as treatments for a condition someone is suffering or used by someone in the chapter. Just as often, they don't appear to have much connection to anything happening in the narrative. 

Lovric has a primary residence in London but spends a great deal of time in Venice. Her travels back and forth between these cities are no doubt much faster and more comfortable than the bone-banging coach rides that all the characters in this novel make as they crisscross Europe without really seeing it! Lovric makes good use of her intimate and visceral knowledge of both cities in the scenes that take place in them. Dickens would be proud to have penned some of these! Although not as well-developed as they might be, the secondary characters that appear in each of these places make perfect sense in terms of the cultures they represent. My favorite in London are the aforementioned nostrum salesman and his so-called 'Zany', sort of a working man's jester. In Venice, the most engaging secondary character is the young portrait painter, Cecelia Cornaro, who helps Greatrakes figure out who Mimosina Dolcezza really is.

Nonetheless, my impression is that Lovric wrote The Remedy in a hurry. I believe the storytelling would have benefited from more thoughtful attention to plot and character development. For example, some background on Greatrakes' early history might have given more depth to his character. This could have been accomplished with a few chapters parallel to the ones in which Mimosina tells about her early years, or through the judicious use of flashbacks. I would also have liked to see more of Greatrakes in action as a businessman. This is another problem of character development. For the whole time he appears in this novel, he is obsessed with his love/lust for Mimosina. But this is a man who, albeit still attractive, is well into middle age (I am able to infer from the narrative that he's around forty-five). He should be considerably more grounded than he appears to be. Finally, in spite of the attention given to Tom's murder throughout the novel (it's the only other matter other than Mimosina that occupies Greatrakes' thoughts!), we are left at the end with Pevenche's imagined reconstruction of the event, told in a letter to a secondary character we thought had been eliminated by Greatrakes. Since she hasn't up to this point been the most reliable of informants, perhaps an alternate telling based on the research completed by Greatrakes' own hired hands might have put this in perspective. All this additional writing may have generated another 50-100 pages of text. I know 440 pages is already long for a contemporary novel, but I've reviewed some in recent months that ran much longer. Many of us who read historical fiction like our books as thick as possible!

[Donna Bird]