The Lost Apothecary
The Lost Apothecary, the début novel from Sarah Penner, is a story told in dual timelines – the present day and 1791. It tells the story of a modern day woman uncovering the secrets of an apothecary who, in 1791, used her skills to rid women of the men who plagued their lives. It is a strong first novel with some flaws but enough positives to garner a recommendation.
Caroline Parcewell (modern day) is in London to celebrate her tenth anniversary. but the night before her scheduled trip, she discovers her husband’s infidelity. And so she is there alone. On a whim, she joins a mudlarking group on the banks of the Thames and finds an old blue bottle with a small etching of a bear on it. A repressed historian, she decides to visit the British Library where, with the help of a librarian, she discovers that the bear etching may represent a London alley – called Bear Alley – that is close to her hotel. They also suspect the bottle is an old apothecary vial. In their research, they find an old hospital record from 1816 that reads:
To men, a maze. I could have show’d them all they wish’d to see at Bear Alley. That a killer need not lift her long, delicate hand. She need not touch him as he dies. There are other, wiser ways: vials and victuals. The apothecary was a friend to all of us women, the brewer of our secret; the men are dead because of us. Only it did not happen as I intend’d. It was not her fault, the apothecary. It was not even mine. I lay blame unto my husband, and his thirst for that which was not meant for him.
Caroline is fascinated and decides to spend her time in London researching the bottle and the story it may tell. But before she gets too far in her investigation, her cheating husband arrives in London, derailing her plans and throwing her life into chaos.
Nella Clavinger (1791) is a hidden apothecary, doling out her “remedies” from a secret room behind her deceased mother’s shop. Her mother was a traditional apothecary but Nella is not; she works only for women and often helps them rid themselves of the evil men in their lives. Clients leave their story in an empty barrel in the old shop and Nella creates a potion to fix their problem. The most recent note is from someone requesting “For my mistress’s husband, with his breakfast. Daybreak, 4 Feb.” Nella has prepared some boiled eggs mixed with Nux Vomica. Within hours of ingesting this, the eater will perish. A twelve-year-old maid named Eliza Fanning comes to collect the eggs. Nella is surprised that her mistress is trusting such a young girl but Eliza listens well and understands what she must do. The murder goes off without a hitch.
Eliza is fascinated by Nella and returns shortly after the murder to visit her. She is concerned that the soul of her deceased master is haunting her because shortly after his death, Eliza starts bleeding. She implores Nella to give her some “magick” to rid her and her mistress’ house of her master’s spirit. Nella refuses, insisting there is no such thing as ghosts and magick. Many years ago, after her mother’s death and after her fiancé betrayed her, Nella began dispensing her poisons – her first victim being the nasty fiancé. And now, at forty-one, her body is quickly decaying; she finds the most simple tasks to be overwhelming and she is not sure how much longer she can continue her work. Eliza wishes to help her, and though Nella is reluctant, she has an order she needs help with. So Eliza and Nella’s fates become intertwined when the application of the new order goes completely wrong – Only it did not happen as I intend’d!
The Lost Apothecary is a slow-moving story that builds to a climactic ending in both timelines. I preferred reading the older timeline – it was very atmospheric and I had the feeling of impending doom throughout. Nella and Eliza are an interesting duo, and though I had a hard time believing Eliza was only twelve (her mannerisms, speech patterns, and insights put her closer to sixteen), the friendship between the two really works. Nella’s background story is slowly revealed through their interactions and it was easy to feel sympathy towards her. She allows the women who seek her potions to have some control over their lives in a society that preferred they stay obedient and silent. But her deeds come at a large cost to Nella – she is essentially rotting from the inside out, each remedy causing the disease to progress further.
Caroline is less interesting. When she agreed to marry, she put aside her dreams of studying history at Cambridge and she’s been putting aside her dreams, and herself, for the last ten years. Her husband James has done an excellent job gaslighting her and discounting her take on things. Somehow his infidelity became her fault – yep, he’s one of those characters that you love to hate. I would have loved to have seen Caroline skewer James – he’s pretty reprehensible – and although she does stand up for herself, she doesn’t close the door completely on him. Her story is interesting but less atmospheric and sometimes stretches the believability boundaries.
I won’t give anything away, but the ending is equally triumphant and baffling, and I’m honestly not sure who survives – the book blurb says “not everyone will survive” – but the ending implies that they do. The ambiguity was annoying – maybe the vagueness was the point but it still left too many unanswered questions for my taste.
As I stated above, this is Ms. Penner’s debut novel and she can clearly spin a good tale. I didn’t love The Lost Apothecary but I did enjoy it and I’m looking forward to her next offering.
Note: This book contains mention of a past miscarriage and off-page assault of a minor.