Book Review: Sarah Penner’s “The Lost Apothecary”

Disclaimer: While I have avoided any spoilers, I have mentioned some themes and the odd vague detail!

Despite my haphazard pronunciation, I did have an idea of the meaning of “apothecary” when I added this title to my amazon basket – a dispenser of medicines, or in this case – as I learnt after reading the blurb – a dispenser of potions and tinctures for medicinal purposes, crucially alongside poisons, intended for men on behalf of women. Eyes grazing over the beautiful violet cover after reading this intriguing synopsis, I noticed the small green beetle lurking at the bottom beneath the author’s name. A huge fan of the ITV show, Whitechapel, I immediately thought in the given context that this may be a blister beetle, necessary to produce the lethal Cantharidin poison, a key player of the third series of Whitechapel (which I have seen an embarrassing number of times). To my amazement, this was indeed the case – but it was the only thing I was able to anticipate in this book of heart-wrenching betrayal, terrible anguish, the pursuit of revenge at all costs, unusual friendships, intense loyalty, and the rampant chase of historical mystery.

The Plot…

As has coincidentally been the theme of the last three books I have read, The Lost Apothecary’s plot also builds on the perspectives of more than one individual, the chapters written in first-person narration from one of two female characters. One of these was Nella, an apothecary in London who lived in the 1700s, offering her deadly services to women – usually in the case of abusive or unfaithful husbands – from her carefully disguised shop on Bear Lane. The other – Caroline; an American women visiting London in the present day as an escape from her own unfaithful husband and fractured marriage, who happens across the scent of the historic secret of the Lost Apothecary, which reignites the investigative essence of her youth as a history major, before being stifled in a “safe” marriage at the expense of her dreams to study at Cambridge.    

The storyline was amazingly well-crafted, cleverly told from both the past and the present in a way which made each discovery incredibly exciting as the picture began to piece together. As is the risk of all books where the chapters are written from the perspective of more than one character, towards the beginning of the novel, I enjoyed one storyline much more than the other, almost finding the present-day chapters to be a chore to power-through in order to reach the reward of Nella’s perspective in historical London. However, it wasn’t long before both characters where equally enthralling, and it was no longer taxing to postpone the tale of one temporarily to read the chapter of the other.  

Having remained undetected for many years in her little shop behind a false wall with a number of measures in place to ensure her anonymity, Nella’s secret livelihood seemed well protected. That was until she opened the door to a prospective customer, who – to her great shock – happened to be a twelve-year old little girl named Eliza Fanning. Eliza would simultaneously be the making and the undoing of Nella; the ultimate unravelling of this apothecary’s hidden identity. Forgotten for centuries, the fascinating tale of Nella, her tinctures and scorned patrons is uncovered by Caroline, after tagging along on a ‘mudlarking’ venture, scouring the shores of the Thames for pieces of the past. Delicately picking up a small light blue vial from the dirt, Caroline wipes the glass to reveal a peculiar engraving of a tiny bear. Sparking the enthusiastic curiosity that she had long since lost, Caroline is insistent on discovering the truth and finding her lost apothecary, and in doing so, finds herself as well.

The Characters…

I absolutely adored every character in this book, and that means a lot! Aside from the couple of men that are mentioned in the odd tale that the reader is obviously meant to dislike, each character had endearing qualities, and the relationships between characters were touching. In particular, the bond between Nella and Eliza was incredibly heart-warming, right through to the bitter end of their time together, which – of course – brought a tear to my eye. Eliza – though but a little girl – was wise and brave beyond her years, fiercely loyal to Nella and her mistress, and so eager to please. Though her arrival into Nella’s life is what unwittingly causes her demise, I’m left certain that Nella would not have wanted it any other way: Eliza became very dear to her heart, and reminded her of the baby she once carried but never got to hold.

Caroline was also a character I felt very close to by the end. The investigation into the lost apothecary takes her on a winding journey that leads to a number of obstacles and challenges, including the thrill of breaking the law and the shock of being suspected of attempted-murder – yet ultimately, her path is one of self-rediscovery; a wonderful story where this adventure allows her to find herself as her own person, rather than in the hands of a male dictating the trajectory of her life.  

Would I recommend?

I really liked this book. It was so refreshingly different from other new releases at the moment, and it’s been ages since I’ve read a fictional tale that is set in a different time period. I would 100% recommend this book: a winding story filled with plenty of unexpected twists, especially towards the end – some painfully sad, some offering a beautiful happy outcome – it was definitely worth the read!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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