Every once and awhile a story comes along that reminds you about how much history has been lost over time. Sarah Penner's debut novel, The Lost Apothecary, was one of those stories. She writes of how a woman in the present tries to unravel the mysteries left behind by two women living centuries ago.
Here's the book's description:
A forgotten history. A secret network of women. A legacy of poison and revenge. Welcome to The Lost Apothecary…In the past, I hadn't really thought too much about the process of finding a historical artifact and researching and so on. Probably more than the average person, of course. I do read a ton of historical fiction and watch movies set in the past so, yeah, I'd say I'm interested in how the truth is found. But for the last almost year I've worked at a community museum as a fundraiser. I've learned from my colleagues (curators and archivists) and my own research on how museums run and I couldn't help but wonder how damaging some of Caroline's behaviour would be to the history she found and why she was choosing to withhold some of the information. I can't mention one particular thing because spoilers but there was a moment at the end where I was just about screaming at the book, wondering what the hell she was thinking. All that being said, I could totally identify with her wanting to get to the bottom of the historical mystery. I was fizzing with excitement right alongside with her as she and Gaynor unearthed research and secrets. I also hoped she would realize that she was doing what she was meant to and would change her life so she could keep going along that path.
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.
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.
A bit more about Caroline...she was so very bland. I didn't find myself caring too much about her apart from her being the vehicle that allowed the mystery of the lost apothecary to come to light. I could, to a point, understand why she would have pushed her dreams aside but...I was annoyed too. Her husband had been so selfish as to kind of persuade her to stay and get married instead of pursuing further education after they finished college. Was he that insecure that he couldn't handle her being away for a year when they were in their early twenties to further her career? Was she that blind that she didn't realize that it was totally possible for her to still do her schooling and go back to him? Especially when he said he didn't want kids until he was more on partner track? I couldn't help but feel more frustration than empathy when it came to Caroline. She was fine but she'll be the most forgettable part of this whole story.
I think this also reads a lot like a debut novel. It kind of felt like a bit of an info dump, especially at the start, and I was impatient for the story to get moving. That said, Penner does do a really good job of keeping the suspense and unraveling the mystery. Until the end when it was kind of just...done. Satisfying, mostly, but I find I'm left with a few niggling questions. I liked that Caroline's chapter's didn't reiterate what I had just read from Nella's or Eliza's points of view as that kept the plot going and kept the story from being repetitive.
Nella's and Eliza's stories were the most intriguing and I enjoyed the historical part of the story the most. I don't spend much time reading about the late 1700s but it was an interesting time. Women didn't have a lot of options and lower class women had even fewer. I appreciated that Nella used her registry not just to write down the poisons and remedies sold but also as a record of the women she interacted with. As she said, these women would otherwise be forgotten by society and their names would never be recorded anywhere else. It was a powerful reminder that, while we still have a lot to do to have equality, things have come a long way.
The Lost Apothecary was an enjoyable read but might not be one that stays with me for too long. Sarah Penner's debut novel was interesting enough and I did feel the need to keep reading until I finished the story and figured out the mystery behind the apothecary.
About the Author
Sarah Penner is the debut author of The Lost Apothecary, to be translated in eleven languages worldwide. She works full-time in finance and is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women's Fiction Writers Association. She and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida, with their miniature dachshund, Zoe. To learn more, visit slpenner.com.
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*An egalley of this novel was provided by the publisher, Park Row Books/HarperCollins, via NetGalley in exchange for a review for the purposes of a blog tour. All opinions are honest and my own.*