Review: “The Lost Apothecary” by Sarah Penner

The Lost Apothecary by  Sarah Penner book cover
Original background cover photo credit: Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

She would come at daybreak – the woman whose letter I held in my hands, the woman whose name I did not yet know.

The Lost Apothecary, Chapter 1 opening

Author: Sarah Penner 
Publication Date: March 2nd 2021
Publisher: Park Row
Genre: Historical Fiction
Find it on: Goodreads

Synopsis

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 jeopardizes 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 realize 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.

From Goodreads

Review

Book Content Warnings: infidelity, molestation, suicide

The Lost Apothecary is a slow-build historical fiction alternating first-person POV between Nella, the apothecary, in 1791 and Caroline, a wife and history enthusiast, modern day. Caroline is on a trip to London on what should be a romantic 10-year anniversary celebration with her husband. It’s been utterly ruined by the discovery of his infidelity a few days earlier (not a spoiler, happens in the first few pages and is in the synopsis) and so she decides to take the vacation by herself to have space to think. While there, Caroline understandably diverges from the now spoiled itinerary in favor of a more sporadic, emotionally-lead approach and happens upon an old stamped apothecary vial. The discovery sparks her latent, unfulfilled historical passion and leads to an investigation that not only uncovers secrets of the past apothecary killer – a female healer and protector in a time when many women had limited options for their health and ailments – but leads to personal discoveries about her own happiness and fulfillment along the way.

This was an interesting read but a bit slow for my liking. Poisonings by nature are both an intimate yet removed means of killing so I didn’t expect action per se, however the focus seemed to be more on Caroline and Nella’s character development than the poisons and killings themselves. Nella’s tragic reason for turning her mother’s once wholesome apothecary shop into a shady hidden place of twisted justice gradually comes to light as one of the most memorable pieces of the book for me. In the 1791 sections we also meet young Eliza Fanning, a 12-year-old girl who connects with Nella on behalf of her mistress and ends up involved in the apothecary shop more than Nella ever intended. For her part, Caroline wrestles with the meaning of happiness v. contentment v. fulfillment as the research reinvigorates old passions. At this sudden crossroads of her life she must decide whether she wants to stay with her husband James and continue her safe and stable work at the family farm, or take a chance on a path that may be what she was secretly missing all along.

Overall while I appreciated the female-forward message and thought the premise was fascinating, there just wasn’t quite enough going on for me. Maybe we can blame all the thriller and fantasy books I power through 😛 The Lost Apothecary might suite other historical fiction readers really well, though, so if that’s you don’t be discouraged – please give it a try!

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