Published: 2nd March 2021
Genre: General Fiction (Historical/Contemporary)
Trigger warnings: Drugs, suicide, sexual references
A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them – setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course. Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.
Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.
One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose – selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardises Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.
In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realise she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate – and not everyone will survive.
This book is like a love letter to the unique beauty of historical artefacts and the successful pursuit of long-held ambitions, which makes for a winning combination. Told from the perspectives of three wonderful protagonists over the course of two separate timelines, it creates intrigue from the very first page with an imaginative concept and the frequent implication of magical realism.
What helps to set it apart is that it is both a historical fiction and a contemporary novel at the same time, providing the basis for an ongoing mystery that was a lot of fun to piece together. There were some unexpected turns of events along the way which suddenly raised the stakes, but ultimately the focus is on a trio of compelling female characters who really drive the story with their values and strength of personality.
It is 1791 and Nella is an apothecary operating from a concealed room in an alley in central London, making herbal remedies as well as fatal poisons on behalf of women who want to take the ultimate revenge on men for their indiscretions. One morning she receives a letter requesting a poison to kill a Mr Amwell, and is shocked to discover that it was written by one of his maids, 12-year-old Eliza Fanning.
After carrying out the deed, Eliza begins to fear the appearance of ghosts in the Amwell household and returns to the apothecary, developing a keen interest in the poisons and asking Nella if she could become her apprentice. While she is there, another customer arrives with a unusual request that Nella is unwilling to fulfil, and it has fateful consequences.
In the present day, meanwhile, Caroline has just arrived in London for a holiday that was meant to mark her 10th wedding anniversary, although she has come alone having recently discovered that her husband James was having an affair. When she joins a group of people mudlarking along the banks of the river Thames, she comes across a small vial with an inscription of a bear, rekindling a passion for historical objects. That leads her on a path to unearth the story of a hidden apothecary that existed over two centuries before.
It is rare to encounter a book with timelines that are so far apart, but it works extremely well as they unmistakeably form part of the same narrative while having their own distinct atmosphere and contextual backdrop. The magical realism is not explicitly present, although the reader is really made to think as there are several occasions where it seems as if paranormal forces could well be at work.
The opening chapters are something close to perfect as they set the scene beautifully, sparking an immediate connection with the plot and the characters in both timelines. I was consumed by curiosity at how Nella’s livelihood would unravel and the role Eliza was going to play, and the infectious enthusiasm with which Caroline goes about her research at the British Library. For anyone who loves looking through old records and learning about historical objects, it does not get much better than this from a fictional point of view.
Some elements of the mystery are not as easy to predict as they originally seem, especially towards the end of the past storyline. In the present day, the sub-plot of Caroline’s marriage is a continuous factor and the author throws a curveball at around the halfway point which takes the plot in an altogether different direction, adding to the suspense.
There was very little to dislike, yet some minor issues did emerge later on in the story. For one thing, it would have been nice to see the relationship between Nella and Eliza developed slightly more – so much is made of them being close friends when the main plot actually only takes place over the space of a week. Meanwhile, I was a bit sceptical of how all the assumptions Caroline made during her research turned out to be correct.
Everything is written in the first person, alternating between the perspectives of each of the three main characters, who were all very likeable. Nella is the most complex; wise and at times nurturing but also morally grey, living in the knowledge that she is indirectly responsible for many deaths. As for Eliza, she is innocent and daring in a way which made her easy to root for throughout.
It is likewise impossible not to feel invested in Caroline, who comes to the realisation that being married to James has held her back from following her interests. Her insatiable determination to get to the truth about the secrets of the vial is truly endearing, and I enjoyed the dynamic she shares with Gaynor at the British Library, as well as all the talk of old maps and newspaper archives.
James is one of those characters you just love to hate. He is entirely self-serving and is the kind of person who accepts no responsibility, having subtly robbed Caroline of the ability to further her own life ambitions. It becomes clear later on that he is prepared to go to extreme lengths to get what he wants, and I spent the whole book desperate for Caroline to make the right decision on her future.
In both timelines, the setting is the exact same area of London and the author achieves a terrific contrast, effortlessly switching between the historical landscape and that of the present day. When told from Caroline’s perspective it was fun and different to see the city depicted through the eyes of an outsider, while there is a permanent sense of mystique about Nella’s apothecary.
The writing is definitely concise as the story moves along at a reasonably swift pace – indeed it could even have been slightly longer as some of the concepts had the potential to be expanded upon, primarily in relation to Nella and Eliza. To demonstrate the impressive depth of the author’s vision, the final pages contain a list of tinctures and their properties.
Overall, the premise of this book is hugely enticing and it does not disappoint. A slight lack of development in certain areas does not deter from the fact that it utterly captured my attention and was difficult to put down. The two timelines and the celebration of history were a joy to behold, and they were complemented by characters who really leave their mark to make it an engaging read.
Born in Kansas, Sarah Penner did not take up writing seriously until 2015 after she attended a talk by Elizabeth Gilbert. That prompted her to enrol on a creative writing course and since then she has not looked back, with The Lost Apothecary her first novel.
A keen traveller, Penner quit her day job in 2021 in order to become a full-time writer. Having also completed a degree in Finance at the University of Kansas, she now resides in Florida with her husband and pet dachshund.
There are definitely some flaws in this book, but in terms of overall enjoyment I have to give it a high rating. I loved the concept and the three main characters so much.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐