Book Review – The Lost Apothecary

Author: Sarah Penner

Publication Date: March 2, 2021

Length: 320 pages

Read Date(s): May 7 ,2021 – May 9, 2021


Goodreads Synopsis

In this addictive and spectacularly imagined debut, 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.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating exploration of women rebelling against a man’s world, the destructive force of revenge and the remarkable ways that women can save each other despite the barrier of time.

My Review

This book defied my expectations. I picked it out thinking it would be a dark book about murder and betrayal filled with suspense and intrigue. While those things were present to some degree, the book was so much more. It was first and foremost about how to pick yourself up after a devastating breach of trust and move forward without being held down by the past or consumed by a desire for revenge. It tackled a few other powerful themes (overcoming trauma, oppression of women in the past and present, uncovering the truth of oneself and disentangling that truth from societal expectations) and did so poignantly. The prose was easy to read and well-written, and I enjoyed the author’s style of writing, especially the ease with which she helped me enter the internal world of these characters and their struggles.

This book consisted of two parallel stories, one happening in the 1790s and the other in the present. I loved the story of the apothecary living in the 1790s. The two main characters of this part of the story, Nella and Eliza, were well-developed, and I enjoyed seeing their friendship blossom. They were definitely an unlikely pairing, but the differences between the characters and how those differences affected their interactions was a big part of what made their story endearing. The backstory of Nella and her journey throughout the book were sad, yet riveting, and kept me hooked on the story. The ending was not what I expected, but I loved it. I think one of my favorite quotes from the book sums up Nella’s story so well:

Healing by way of vengeance. But no such thing existed; it never had. Hurting others had only injured me further.

The story of Caroline set in the present day was also interesting, but I didn’t like it as much as I did the story of the apothecary. It seemed to drag at times, and I found myself questioning how easily she found information and solved different parts of the mystery. Despite these drawbacks, I thought the adventure itself was a great device for the self-exploration present in her story, and I enjoyed feeling like I was solving the mystery of the apothecary alongside Caroline. I also related to the self-exploration aspect of her story and the ease with which one can lose oneself in the rat race of life and the expectations that others place on us. The distinction this book made between being happy and being fulfilled, and how one can be one without the other, really made me stop and think about my own life.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction who also enjoys reading about transformative stories. The characters feel like real people and undergo a lot of growth throughout the book. People just looking for a book with lots of murder and darkness will probably be disappointed, but there is some of that here as well. I rate the book 4 out of 5 stars.

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