Hello fellow readers! I finally finished The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, and WOW, what a book. For those of you unfamiliar with this author, she’s new on the scene and showcasing her talents as a historical fiction mystery, thriller & suspense author for certain. What’s alluring about this book is the era that it’s set, the multidimensional characters, and the interwoven stories of women’s lives back in the late 1700s. As a fan of history and historical fiction, added with the mystery and suspense of the main characters, this book checks all the proverbial boxes for a great read.
First, the setting. Late 18th century London, England off of Fleet Street, no less. It’s one for the books. Yep, it’s a pun for your entertainment;-) Anyway, Fleet Street, around since the Romans, sparks thoughts of Sweeney Todd for starters, but it brings to mind a time where hunger was prevalent, sickness, poverty, and a total and utter lack of women’s rights. As a matter of fact, females upon birth were the property of their fathers until married, and then they became the property of their spouses. Domestic violence and infidelity were prevalent.
As the author explains, there were lots of recorded deaths of women killing their husbands. However, she speculates lots of deaths simply went unknown. Unrecorded. How’d they do it?
Poison was the way many wives and lovers killed. At the time, there were no real clear cut ways to analyze blood to detect poison. Unless, of course, the bottle of arsenic was lying conspicuously around. It wasn’t until the 1900s that blood analysis was invented/used to catch killers in their deeds. One can argue for and against this type of killing, but that’s not for me to debate. The author illustrates the point that it did indeed happen, and she pens three tales of women whose lives were irreparably intertwined because of what happened in the late 1700s London.
Beautifully written, I could see myself in the streets, mucking about, smelling the noxious odors, and just imagining what life was like back then. If you’re into such things, then this might be the book for you.
Ah, now this is the crux of it, is it not? Without characters that one can identify with, their struggles and imperfections, the author has lost the reader from page one, paragraph one. But Sarah Penner, in The Lost Apothecary, does these characters justice. From get go, they leap off the page and snatch your heart, rendering you speechless on their ride through life from present day to late 1700s England and back.
First, there’s Caroline in present day USA. She’s from Ohio, living an unextraordinary life, focused on becoming a mom and not the monotonous life she’d carved for herself when she gave up higher education for the man of her dreams. She’s taken on a role as manager at her parents’ business, and she’s swimming through the motions, trying in vain not to question her life’s choices for fear of disappointment. Her husband, James, is moving on up in his career, and he’s complacent with his trajectory. Although, secrets abound within this couple.
My initial thoughts on Caroline were that she’s was definitely relatable. How many women accept roles less than what they dreamed of in life? I’m guessing, and am no expert, but I’d say a ton. Women subjugate themselves for family, friends, life, the donut in the other room calling their name…
Okay, maybe not the donut, but you get the gist. Women, generally, put others before themselves, and most to a fault. Again, another topic of debate people love to comment on, but the point here is that she settled. Yep. Settled. Settled for the man, the work, the home, and what everyone expected of her, and in the process she lost a part of herself. She squelched it in favor of what was easy, and we meet her at this point in life where she’s starting to question it. Of course, she’s super excited for an anniversary trip to London, but that gets sidetracked. You’ll have to read the book to find out why!
Anyway, I love Caroline. She’s lovable, likeable, you name it. A great character to go on a ride with.
Next, we have Nella. She’s alive during the 1790s in London, England off Fleet Street. We meet her on her downward spiral after a couple decades of hardships and heartache. She’s a shell of a woman, trying hard to fight for women of that era and offering some comfort to them in anyway she can whether that be legal or not. Nella is the pharmacist/chemist of her time, preparing ointments, brews, and tinctures for everyday female maladies and some not so everyday needs.
One being killing a spouse or lover.
Never, though, does she harm other women. That’s her line that she doesn’t cross, and for good reason. Again, you’ll have to read the book to understand why she’s become ill and bitter, but I loved her. For all her faults, she’s an exquisite character that adds loads of thought-provoking questions from then and now. Anytime a book makes me think, it’s great. Doesn’t matter that I don’t have all the answers, because no one does. It’s great because it asks the questions.
Lastly, we have Eliza. Sweet, little Eliza, all of but 12. Although old for her years in some ways, so naive. And she’s the catalyst in this rollercoaster story of lives. The peaks and valleys that only a young girl could ignite, she’s absolutely lovable. Brought into town from her family farm, her mother wants a better life for her. She enters as a maid of sorts to a prominent family where she’s eventually crosses paths with Nella. I won’t go any further than that, because, again, you’ll have to read the book! But suffice it to say, Eliza is so innocent and green behind the ears that her attempts at helping only serve to sour more so than help. Sweet little Eliza’s story is as much of a wonder as the rest.
And what of the plot? As you’ve gleaned from the above paragraphs, if you’ve been so kind as to read them, The Lost Apothecary deals with three females. One woman is of present day, Caroline, while the other two lived during 1791 (Nella and Eliza). The Apothecary plays a central role in the story and was started by Nella’s mother in order to help women of that time period for everyday ailments like menstrual issues, joint pains, and the like. When she died, Nella inherited the shop.
Grieved over her mother’s passing, she wallows about, untethered, until a young man arrives on the scene and turns her life upside down. Nella then becomes known in certain circles as the poisoner to help women and their oppressive men. When little Eliza arrives in her shop one morning, a series of disastrous events unfold. Meantime, in present day London, Caroline escapes to England in an attempt to hide from her demons as her 10th wedding anniversary doesn’t go as planned.
It’s a wonderfully thought out plot. Intricately woven, these women take you on a ride of mystery and suspense that will have you turning the pages into the wee small hours of the morning.
Over all, I’d give The Lost Apothecary five stars! It’s delightful from the first to last page, and the characters are robust as you or I. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t have any other books out as this is her debut novel, but I expect great things from Ms. Sarah Penner, and I can’t wait to get my hands on them.
What do you think? Have you read The Lost Apothecary? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Comment below or shoot me an e-mail, and until next time…