A forgotten history. A secret network of women. A legacy of poison and revenge. Welcome to the Lost Apothecary…
Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.
Meanwhile, in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’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 debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.
Read: April 2021
Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5
That I read The Lost Apothecary at all testifies to the advertising prowess of social media. Historical fiction is not a favorite genre of mine, although I sometimes do find exceptions. I spent my Audible credit (yes, this was before I switched to Libro) for the month on this book because I kept seeing it in my Goodreads feeds – in followed accounts’ posts, in ads, et cetera. It popped up on the radio or in one of the newspapers I subscribe to, I’m pretty sure. Eventually I just gave in because I wanted to know what everyone was buzzing about – and whether it was worthy of that buzz.
Nella is a dealer of protection and revenge, both via poisons. Her clientele consists solely of women – either women who have been wronged by men or women seeking assistance on behalf of women who have been wronged by men. Enter Eliza, a twelve-year-old whose mistress dispatches her to procure a poison against her own husband because he is preying on girls, including Eliza. Fortunately or unfortunately, Eliza quickly develops an enthusiastic, unrelenting curiosity in Nella’s work. Two hundred twenty years from then, Caroline Parcewell is grappling with what a piece of shit her husband James actually is. She’s contemplating whether her marriage will survive when she heads to London. In a move that revives the dreams James crushed, she begins investigating Nella’s business and the murders connected to it.
The relatively small cast is nonetheless populated with complex, interesting characters. Nella didn’t just up and decide one day to abet murders across London just for the hell of it: let’s just say she began her line of work as a way to bite back in a world where women’s power is limited. Eliza is persistent, sometimes to a fault, and very bright – the kind of bright that, when tempered with a bit of patience and/or schooling, really takes people places. Although readers only witness Nella and Eliza’s mother-daughter relationship over the course of – a few days? Weeks? It’s been a while since I read this – their friendship is nonetheless precious. The brevity of the time span depicted in the book does not diminish their friendship. While all of the women experience strong, substantial character arcs, Caroline emerges as the star of the show: In her resurfacing from the confines of a claustrophobic marriage to an emotionally manipulative man, she rediscovers herself, all while solving an ultra-cold case murder and dealing with her husband’s shit. Caroline, in a synthesis of both Eliza’s and Nella’s best traits, is a determined detective with an eye for detail who brooks no shit from anyone – including
There are two sticking points I have with this book. First, I am not as impressed with the plot as I hoped I’d be. I expected it to be more… suspenseful. I mean, it is – it just isn’t sufficiently suspenseful. So what would you do to add suspense? you ask. I don’t know. Maybe the suspense level is fine, and I just wasn’t in the right mindset to enjoy the story to its fullest when I was reading. Maybe I anticipated an even darker story than I received. My biggest issue with the plot stems from how so much of it is predicated on bad sex ed. Yes, Nella and Eliza’s story occurs in the late eighteenth century and sex ed was even worse than it currently is in many US states, but that fact does little to mollify me. It’s frustrating to watch a newly menorrheic twelve-year-old believe that her vagina (if she even understands what her vagina is) is haunted by the ghost of the man that she killed using one of Nella’s poisons, even though she is in regular contact with a female apothecary who could actually explain periods to her. The other problem I have is with the magic. If you’re a regular reader of my reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I love me some magic rules and some worldbuilding when it comes to fantasy. In The Lost Apothecary, the magic isn’t even discussed until the latter half of the book, and then only briefly before being used as a Hail Mary at the end of the novel. For the gravity of the situations magic is utilized in, the scant focus on magic makes its use feel more like a cop-out than a viable, feasible solution to the problem.
Although historical fiction isn’t typically to my taste, The Lost Apothecary still was an interesting read, even when it fell short in the suspense department. In spite of the clumsy use of magic, readers will find an appealing plot and truly compelling character arcs render this novel a sturdy debut.
Enjoy my review? Check out my Buy Me a Coffee page!