In The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, Caroline Parcewell embarks on an anniversary trip to London without her unfaithful husband. The historian is struggling to deal with his infidelity and turns to a research project to occupy her time and thoughts. She uncovers evidence in the unsolved Apothecary Murders that have been a mystery for over two hundred years. While she is searching for answers in the present day, history is unfolding in 1791. Nella has been a trusted and secret apothecary for over 20 years, dealing herbs and mixtures for women to administer to husbands, brothers, fathers and any other man who has betrayed or hurt them. In all of her years in this well-hidden business, Eliza Fanning is the first child to walk through Nella’s door. The child is eager to learn the business, but Nella is apprehensive. Caroline, Nella, and Eliza are brought together in a twist of fate that surpasses time.
Spoiler Alert- This review will contain some spoilers about the plot and characters of this story. Please continue reading at your own discretion.
This story shifted back and forth between Caroline in the present and Nella and Eliza in 1791. As Caroline uncovered the mystery through her research, the same events were happening for Nella and Eliza. This parallel was kind of eerie, but I think it fits with the genre. This novel is a historical fantasy and it definitely read as one. I did not see any actual magic, but I think Penner’s writing style to evoke a sense of mystique. Although the entire story took place over several days in both time periods, it did not feel that way when I was reading. So much happened in those few days that if I had not paid attention to the dates at the beginning of the chapters, I would have thought this story was spread over a couple of months. I found it kind of funny how these murders had remained a mystery for hundreds of years, but Caroline seemed to find clues left and right in only a few days.
When I began reading, I expected Nella to be crueler and more cold-hearted. Surprisingly, neither of those descriptions were accurate. Nella was presumably in her 40s, had never been married and had no children. Some people might find it odd for a woman to fit this profile in the present time, but it is not extremely unusual. In 1791, this combination usually meant something was wrong. As I continued reading, I learned she had been betrayed by her lover. She was deeply hurt and her dreams of having a family were shattered. I am glad Penner gave her this backstory because it gave more insight into why she began selling the poisons. Before her heartbreak, the shop simply sold natural remedies for common ailments, which was what her mother had intended.
From the very beginning, this shop was only meant for women. This is what Nella had been taught as a child and she was very adamant about this throughout the story. The women that came to her were not looking to kill people just for the fun of it. Some of them had been betrayed or threatened or hurt by men in their lives and they did not have anyone else to turn to. It is always important for women to have safe spaces and I can see how crucial they are in times and places where women have very little protection. It is clear how valuable this safe space is for them because they have only shared it’s existence with other women for decades. They trust Nella enough to come to her and in return, Nella is able to trust them to be discreet.
Penner added a touch of self-discovery through Caroline’s part of the story. When Caroline got married, she gave up continuing her education to support her husband, James. She remained on birth control because he was not ready to have children yet, despite her own desire to start a family. She made so many sacrifices to be a good wife and James cheated on her. I thought it made perfect sense for her to want some time alone to do some soul searching after what happened. During this trip, she was able to reconnect with her passion for history. Creating the project gave her confidence and I enjoyed reading this character development.
What stuck out to me about this book was the level of women’s empowerment and the friendships formed. Caroline had spent her whole marriage putting her husband first while her own needs were unmet. I think taking the trip to London by herself was incredibly brave and a great decision for her. She made a new friend and got the chance to get in touch with herself again. I also really liked Nella and Eliza’s bond. Eliza was immediately interested in the shop and wanted to learn all about it. Despite being apprehensive at first, Nella relented and I thought this was perfect for her. There had been no previous mention of her having any friendships with other women and her life seemed very lonely. Eliza was quickly able to fill an emptiness in her heart the Nella had felt for a very long time.
Ultimately, I enjoyed this story. This is the first fantasy book I have read in quite a while and I am interested in reading more in the future. Please let me know what you thought of this book in the comment section!