The Lost Apothecary – Sarah Penner

Eliza is 12 in 1791 London. She is in service to Mrs. Amwell, who dispatches Eliza on an errand to a hidden shop — an apothecary– where Nella, aging and sick, compounds death for men who betray women. Caroline flew alone to London for what was supposed to be her tenth-anniversary trip. She’s left James her unfaithful accountant husband behind. On a whim, Caroline goes joins a mudlarking group in the Thames looking for items in the riverbed. She finds an old blue vial, intact, with a small bear etched on it. Before her marriage, Caroline planned to pursue an advanced history degree. The vial awakens the history bug in her. The Lost Apothecary alternates among Eliza’s, Nella’s, and Caroline’s first-person narratives. I particularly enjoyed the historic chapters and the characters, Nella, Eliza, and the women they serve. Some things made no sense. For example, Nella repeatedly and unconvincingly explains why she maintained and failed to destroy a registry that would implicate every woman who used her services. Sometimes, “over” explaining draws attention to a less believable but necessary plotline. I recommend a lighter touch. As to the present-day chapters, I did not connect emotionally to Caroline. The concept for the modern chapters works. The storyline is fine. The pieces showing how Caroline conducts research and finds answers hang together. I don’t actively dislike Caroline. But I really didn’t care what happens to her, Like the historical chapters, the present-day chapters have some “huh?” moments. Here and there, Penner again draws attention to the least believable parts of the plot by overexplaining. Most mysteries include little facts and plot twists that barely make sense. If they leave such gaping holes that you keep explaining them to the reader, find a way to change the story If they are necessary but somewhat unbelievable or problematic, go lightly on the explanation. I like the themes Penner examines as to what options exist for women harmed by men, then and now. The women in various classes and stages of life are connected by thoughts of becoming a woman (menstruation), whether or not to have children, loss of children, inability to have children, and how this shapes their lives. I enjoyed reading about medicine in the late eighteenth century and the apothecaries’ role in treating the rich and middling classes. Despite my quibbles about over-explaining, Penner’s style is enjoyable: I would read this book again and recommend it to certain friends. I absolutely will look for and buy Penner’s future novels of this type.

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