I’m always conscious of the sage advice to not judge a book by its cover, but I have to admit that the moment I saw the beautiful cover of The Lost Apothecary, I knew I had to get my hands on it! Sarah Penner’s debut historical fiction tale of herbs, potions, murder, and feminism did not disappoint, and had me burning the midnight oil to find out all of its secrets. Beyond the excitement of the plot, the book has a surprisingly strong inspirational vibe relating to female friendships, the importance of women supporting women, and never giving up on your dreams just because life gets in the way.
Nella, the Apothecary, works in late 1700’s London, doing the bulk of her business in selling poisons. Her clientele is exclusively female, because she believes that women should never do harm to women, and must work to protect each other from the greed and violence of men. She meets twelve year old Eliza, when she sells her the poison to help her kill her employer’s husband. The husband takes advantage of young servant girls in the house, so he surely deserves his end…as do Nella’s other victims. She is a serial killer with heart, and as such takes Eliza under her wing, and they develop a strong friendship. Nella tells Eliza that one of the most important things she learned from her mother, who had also been an apothecary (albeit not one who dabbled in poisons), that it was important for women to have a place where they could be safe, and receive treatment for ailments that male doctors did not understand. She keeps close track of her clients, as her mother also did, because their records may be the only mention in history that those women had ever existed. Nella was acutely aware of the subordinate role that women play in history, and was trying to do her part to overcome that.
Fastforward to present day, when Caroline comes across an old apothecary bottle while on a mudlarking expedition in London. Caroline had been a history major at one point, but had given up on her dreams of grad school at Cambridge to marry her college sweetheart and settle in the Midwest, where she took a job working on her parents’ farm. Now on what was supposed to be an anniversary trip to London, she finds herself on her own after uncovering her husband’s infidelity. Her discovery of the bottle reminds her how much she loved researching the minutiae of regular peoples’ lives from history, so she makes up her mind to uncover the bottle’s origin and secrets. She ends up tracing the clues of Nella’s apothecary and killing streak, along with her friendship with young Eliza, realizing that history has unfairly overlooked their stories. But, she also realizes, that if she got back in touch with her love of history, and pursued an advanced degree, that she could change all of that. Luckily for Caroline, her own female friends are there to remind her that she is worthy of happiness and fulfillment, even if it looks different than what society expects.
“History doesn’t record the intricacy of women’s relationships with one another; they’re not meant to be uncovered.”
There was nothing I didn’t love about The Lost Apothecary! The characters were richly drawn and nuanced, the ties between past and present were realistic, as were all the personal dramas that played out across the arc of the plot. The message of women supporting women was timely, and Caroline’s awe at getting back in touch with her youthful passions was poignant and inspiring. I cannot recommend this book enough, make sure you pre-order a copy today!