Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner


Park Row Books, 2021
301 pp


I read this in March shortly after it was published, but a lot of stuff happening here at home has distracted me mentally so I'm just getting around to talking about this book now.   

I bought and read The Lost Apothecary while searching for books to round out my IRL book group's reading list, hoping to fill a mystery/crime slot in the lineup.   When I discovered this novel, it was the premise that grabbed me (from the dustjacket blurb):

"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. Nella's dark world is no place for her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old girl named Eliza Fanning, but their unexpected bond sparks a string of consequences that echoes through the centuries."
That's just the first part of the blurb, but it's what got my attention immediately.   It goes on to say that in the present, a woman named Caroline Parcewell will find an old apothecary bottle and then discover a link between said bottle and "London's long-unsolved apothecary murders." Since I tend to enjoy books in which past and present collide with the added touch of more than a hint of mystery (the unsolved murders),  I bought it and then read it pretty much right away.  

I have to say that this book and I did not get along well.  

It starts out fine enough, back in the eighteenth century where we first encounter Nella and her "apothecary shop for women's maladies."   It had once belonged to her mother, who had admistered tinctures meant "only for good," dispensing "the most benign of herbal remedies" and taught Nella her craft in the process.  After her mother's death and a personal betrayal however,  Nella added her own particular spin to her work as an apothecary: she used her knowledge to help women in despair to eliminate the source of their problems.  The "cornerstone" of her trade was based on the idea that her work  was meant to "help and heal women, not harm them,"  but things change and trouble begins when young housemaid Eliza Fanning is sent by her mistress to procure a concoction in a hurry. 

Flash forward to the present, and Caroline is on a trip to London that was meant to be shared with her husband for their anniversary.  Plans changed, however, when she'd discovered that her spouse had been unfaithful, and she had come alone.  Once there, she is looking for a pub and finds herself joining a group planning to go mudlarking along the Thames later that day; just as she's about to give up she finds a blue vial, inscribed with "an animal of some kind."  Instantly she feels a "strange connection" with whoever had last touched the small bottle, and decides to track down its source.   Thus begins the movement crossing a dual timeline and entwining the lives of the three main characters.  

I knew I was in trouble by the end of Chapter two when Caroline, who hasn't even joined the mudlarking group yet, begins waxing about her issues with her husband and relates the following:
"I willed myself to leave all thoughts of home behind: James, the secret I'd uncovered, our unfulfilled desire for a baby. I needed a break from the grief suffocating me, the thorns of fury so sharp and unexpected they took my breath away."
Oh dear.  At this point I actually started laughing and did a super eyeroll. After that it's more of the same, and frankly I got really tired of her spending too much of her time blaming James for how her life's turned out.   This entire part of storyline could have been left out and I wouldn't have minded one bit.  It also seems that Caroline runs into luck every time she goes down a new avenue while researching the history of the blue vial; all a bit too pat for my taste.  And while the story of Nella and Eliza was at least interesting, Eliza's reason for staying with Nella and causing all of her trouble was based on something so ridiculous as to be unbelievable, a complete molehill made into a giant mountain.   Not that I'll say what that is, but jeez louise. Come on.  And there's more but that's enough for now. 

Chalk it up to my picky-reader self, but for me The Lost Apothecary just didn't deliver what it promised.  Based on the premise, I was beyond excited to read it but it just wasn't for me and while I'll offer my copy to anyone in my book group who may want it, it's not going on that list either.  Intriguing mystery it was not.   

On the other hand, the book has an average 3.89 rating on Goodreads, close to five stars on Amazon, and a large number of book bloggers LOVE this novel, giving it top marks and high praise, so once again I seem to be  that little red fish swimming against the tide.   It might be okay to toss in a beach bag over the summer, but it was just not that appealing to me, something that happens now and then.