With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.
Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.
Meanwhile in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate―and not everyone will survive.
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Nearing her ten-year anniversary, Caroline stumbles on a secret that changes everything, and is now exploring London alone on a holiday booked to celebrate with her husband. There is an element of numbness in her response, as she reflects on the life she’d expected to have here in the U.K. Caroline is English and had plans to for a post-graduate career, when she met her husband who had a great job, back home in the States. She chose to follow her heart and is reflecting on all she gave up for the relationship, when she stumbles across a man who takes tourists out mudlarking. When she joins them, she finds wandering the shoreline looking for objects in the mud, strangely relaxing. She follows their guide’s advice that she shouldn’t look for an object, but look at patterns in the mud for an absence of something. Not long after she finds her bottle, an apothecary bottle, with a crude etching of a bear.
The object sends us back to the 18th Century and our second narrator, Eliza. Eliza is only twelve years old, but wise beyond her years in some ways. She is working as a lady’s maid, for a mistress whose husband has a wandering eye and even more worrying wandering hands. These don’t just extend to his mistress, but sometimes to Eliza, who wakes up one day having been drugged with no recollection of what has happened to her. Unable to stomach his infidelity, Eliza’s mistress sends her to a mysterious apothecary who resides in Bear Alley. There she will enter the shop front, and as instructed, leave her mistresses’s instructions in a barrel. The apothecary will make up a tincture or poison for the buyer’s purpose and it will be ready to collect the next day. Nella, the mysterious apothecary, creates a poison for the purpose of killing the husband. However, they are at crossed purposes, because Eliza’s mistress intends the poison for their dinner guest, her husband’s lover. The consequences of this mix-up will be life changing, for Eliza and Nella.
This was a brilliant eye-opener to women’s lives in 18th Century London, and an interesting comparison to 21st Century women too. Despite our usual thinking that females lives were quite restricted, here in Nelly and Eliza, we have two women who are acting quite independently. It showed me how we can be mislead in our perceptions of a time period and the people in it, highlighting how important academic research is. We tend to think of the late 18th Century and Regency periods in terms of Jane Austen – all polite, restrained, conversation and bonnets. However, that is only highlighting one class of women and here we see that there were women living on the margins, independent of the marriage market and making their own living. Eliza’s mistress is wholly dependent on her husband, so the fear around his relationship with another woman is not emotional, but financial and based on what others will think. If set aside, she would potentially lose her home, her comfortable living and her place in polite society. Nella lives a poorer life with no status in society, but she’s dependent on no one. Her shop and her trade are hers alone. She’s also a woman focused on helping the sisterhood, her potions and poisons are only sold for the healing or help of women. In fact when she finds out the poison Eliza seeks for her mistress is to harm another woman, she wants to destroy it.
In contrast, we imagine that a 21st Century woman would be in a better position than Eliza’s mistress, but is Caroline truly as independent as Nella? She had dreams and plans for her life, that were set aside when she met her husband because his career was established back in the USA. She then changed continents, leaving behind her dreams, her family and friends. She’s then dependent upon her husband financially and for his social circle, there’s no support network for her and she finally admits to herself that she’s been unhappy in the relationship for some time. When she takes the vial she’s found to Gaynor at the British Library a whole world opens up in front of her. She is enthusiastic, full of life and starts to gain back some agency in her own life. So when her husband unexpectedly arrives to join her, how will she feel about his desire to save their relationship? Caroline has to learn to be her own woman again and relish that sense of independence that Nella loved and protected two hundred years earlier.
I thought the author conveyed both 18th and 21st Century London really well. I could imagine myself there with all the sights and smells she conjured up. I loved the description of the apothecary shop, back in its heyday and as it was when Caroline rediscovered it. That she would find the very book where Nella recorded women who would otherwise be forgotten, was an amazing thought. These were women who wouldn’t be recorded in history largely written by men. When I first studied 18th Century literature I realised how narrow my knowledge of the period was, focussed on battles and adventure rather than the domestic. I remember Moll Flanders being a bawdy, unexpected eye opener of how one woman uses what she can to survive in life. Sometimes, we apply 21st Century standards to women living in an entirely different world and I loved that the author turned that on its head and asked whether we’re any more free? Even if the choices she made to get there were entirely her own, Caroline has still been living in a gilded cage. The ending of Nella and Eliza’s story was unexpected, but showed the strength of female friendship and solidarity. I found myself hoping that Caroline would do the same – to choose an unexpected and unknown future of her own making. This was a brilliant read, historical fiction at its best and an incredible debut from an author I’ll be watching in the future.
Meet The Author
Sarah Penner is the New York Times bestselling author of THE LOST APOTHECARY (Park Row Books/HarperCollins), available now wherever books are sold. THE LOST APOTHECARY will be translated into two dozen languages worldwide. Sarah and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida with their miniature dachshund, Zoe. To learn more, visit SarahPenner.com