When I went to my local Waterstones I barely found a single copy of Sarah Penner’s ‘The Lost Apotechary’ still available. I have seen many bookstragram profiles writing about it in a positive light so after a few months of it, I decided to finally read and review it myself. Unlike the last review I have done for ‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ in which my opinion was quite different from the majority, this time I must say I have enjoyed this novel. There were many flaws and inconsistencies that became quite obvious when writing a review, but it was an easy read. While at first, it seems like it is more of a mystery novel, after a while it becomes a novel about women throughout history and poses the question of who writes history and who do we remember.
The novel follows two plots both set in London, but in different temporal settings. One is 18th century and the other contemporary. The main characters are two women-Caroline, an American woman is on what was supposed to be her anniversary trip alone and Nella, an owner of a mysterious apothecary hidden in the back alleyways that sells poison to women. As the story unfolds, we learn more about these women and others around them. Caroline by chance finds the vial that sends her on a chase through London to find the apothecary and unravel its secrets. In this search, she meets other people who help her in this, but most importantly, starts learning more about herself and her own life. I do not think that this plot or some of the plot twists are exactly revolutionary, but they definitely worked in this novel and I enjoyed reading it. While at first, I was honestly a bit disappointed to realize the mystery part was not the main part of the story, the focus on the history of women was more interesting anyhow.
In addition to Nella and Caroline, other very interesting characters were Eliza and Gaynor whose lives become entangled with this story as well. The narratives switch between Nella, Caroline and Eliza, and Penner did a good job in differentiating between these three narrators, not just in terms of temporal setting, but also in their personalities. I have seen quite a lot of criticism of Caroline’s character, saying that she was quite annoying and entitled, but I did not think so and actually really liked hearing her thoughts and ideas. Is she naive? Absolutely. Is she completely oblivious to so many things around her. Also yes. But I still enjoyed reading about her finally enjoying her own life. However, I will agree that Nella and her story are much more engaging and interesting to read about, with her backstory and the reason she changed the purpose of the shop after her mother’s passing. Additionally, her motivation to not burn the apothecary records so that the ordinary women could have at least some proof of existence in the history felt like a nice touch both for the plot and her character.
I wish that there was more about Gaynor and her father, though, as they seemed like fascinating characters. But, I guess this was not their story and they were just true supporting characters. However, one thing I did not buy was how fast the relationship between Caroline and Gaynor developed. I simply cannot believe that a person intelligent and self-sufficient enough like Gaynor would risk it all just to help a random American woman who came in with the vial she found on the walking tour with her father. Additionally, Caroline did not really give anything to Gaynor and instead came in with all her messes and even asked her to bail her out of a situation with the police. For a novel that is so largely based on female friendship, I felt this one specific one was really lacking and was quite unrealistic.
On the other hand, the relationship between the older person who is hesitant to let anybody in their life and a younger person full of life and hope that finds their way in through positivity and glow always warms my heart. This is exactly why Nella and Eliza’s friendship was well done, albeit done before. I loved reading about Nella thinking about Eliza and showing that in the short period she started caring about this child and her faith and that Eliza too cares for Nella. In a way, they become each other’s surrogate family and it was so heartwarming to see in a time and space that was not filled with love and warmth.
Another parallel between Nella and Caroline is that of being a mother (or in this case, not being). While Caroline was planning a pregnancy before her marriage fell apart, a big part of Nella’s suffering and the reason she started selling poison was because she was betrayed, resulting in her losing the pregnancy. I did not mind this line of discussion, even though I have seen criticism saying that the book focused too much on it. However, planning a pregnancy or losing it is something that a lot of women and their partners are thinking about. For Nella, taking in a twelve year old Eliza under her wing at least temporarily heals this wound, while it seems that for Caroline the whole character arc was about realizing to go for her own dreams, without her cheating husband.
Oh, and speaking about her husband….I will not say much except that there is not a single redeeming quality about this excuse for a person. He has consistently not crossed, but stomped Caroline’s boundaries to the point he did not give her a few days of space after finding out he is a cheater. But, after Caroline does not immediately take him back in and actually does her own thing, he puts himself in the hospital so she would…take pity on him and love him again, I guess? I was worried that the plot will show them ‘working on their issues’ as if their faults are equal. I know that there are truly some horrible people out there, but James really took the cake, almost dying and putting his wife in prison. They take some time apart and my reading of it is that their separation might mean they will get back together, but I really hope I am reading that wrong.
Earlier, I said that I was a bit disappointed when the plot shifted from the mystery style novel to a different story, but that as I was reading, I was okay with it. Well one reason for it is because I think that the mystery element of the book was one of the weakest parts of the novel. First of all, I find it quite unbelievable that a small room in the back alley of central London went undiscovered since the 1700s and that it was not ruined since then and is in fact in pretty good condition. Furthermore, Caroline does not report her finding to Graynor who is an actual historian, but takes some grainy photos. The whole process of her researching this also felt extremely underwhelming and not at all adventurous. The most adventurous thing she has done is jump over the fence and even then she kept thinking about how she is breaking the law. Additionally, there were simply too many coincidences and lucky turns in this research of the apothecary that it felt like this plot was just wrapped quickly to focus on the relationships between people and Caroline’s development. I don’t know about you, but I was not too engaged in reading explanations about how online databases work.
I also was not too excited about the ending of the book as it felt quite rushed and illogical. First of all, how on Earth did Caroline simply fill in the online application for her Masters the night before and already know she is in? Why Cambridge of all the places in the world and why studying literature, if she wants to write her thesis on a historical event?
Speaking of the other plot line of the 18th century, after all the suffering and the more realistic depictions of the class system and position of women in that time, the ending felt like quite a big change in tone. The implication that Eliza was saved by some kind of magick after jumping off a bridge and Nella deciding to live after that because of her sacrifice did not sit all that too well with me. I was glad to see Nella and Eliza reuniting at the end, but this was so out of the left field that at first I thought Eliza was a ghost and not still alive. I understand the decision not to allow an actual child character to die, but I just did not understand the inclusion of magick elements if before that they were dismissed.
At the end, I scored this book ⅗ , as despite all the flaws I wrote about, I did find it an enjoyable read and I understand the positive and negative reviews for this book. I finished the book in two days and did not regret buying it. What were your thoughts on this book? Let me know.