Anticipated Read, Enjoyable but Hoping for Something More
Reviewed in the United States on 15 May 2021
Historical fiction is my jam, and The Lost Apothecary definitely falls into that genre. I love books with strong female characters and stories that involve healing and herb lore. This book is fun to read because it interweaves the stories of two women, one in the past and one in the present.
Alongside Nella, the herbalist, plying her trade in the late 1700s in London, England, is Caroline, an American, arriving solo to London for a planned ten year anniversary trip after catching her husband cheating on her with a work colleague. Caroline's anger, grief and confusion over her husband's infidelity force her to confront the direction her life has gone and to question if there isn't something more for her to pursue beyond marriage, children, and making herself fit into the spaces that make her husband's pursuits more attainable. She reflects on her love for British history, Victorian authors and their stories, and her unfulfilled dream of attending Cambridge whilst (don't you just love the word "whilst"?) walking through London. As she walks, Caroline is invited to try mudlarking, a tourist activity involving mucking about on the Thames after the tide is out to find odd, old, or valuable bits left behind from the water. As it happens, Caroline does find something rather rare and, thus, begins her journey to discover its origins, the people related to it, and in the midst of all of that, she reignites her passion for history, research, and herself.
I enjoyed the other, more minor characters in the story. Alfred, the mudlarking tour guide, and Gaynor, his research librarian daughter, provided bright spots in an otherwise dark story and provided the help Caroline needed to uncover the secrets of Nella's world. The conflict between Caroline and her husband, James, is believable, and it helps to drive the story forward. The twist with the events that happen in the middle of the story and how it ties into Nella's storyline is canny and makes you want to keep reading until the end.
I have been anticipating reading this book since I heard about it coming out last fall. This is the author, Sarah Penner's, debut novel, so I had no previous works to check out, but as a herbalist and former practicing holistic healthcare practitioner, stories involving plants as medicine and women cunning enough to use them always capture my attention. It is well known in herbalist circles that almost any healing substance in the wrong dose can be used to hurt. It was all for the better that in this story the herbs being used were to poison men taking advantage of women in a time when women had little to no power at all. Love those strong, wily, feminist characters! Bring it!
It was disappointing for me to learn, then, while reading the first few chapters how Nella managed clientele seeking her sinister services -- a setup involving almost no protection of her identity. The story lost a star at this because this part of the plot was too difficult to believe.
Additionally, there is young Eliza, a girl, who comes to deliver Nella a request from her employer. Her naiveté regarding her own body and events in the home in which she serves form are difficult to give weight to, and yet, they are the whole basis of why she seeks to remain with Nella. Eliza's reliance on magic to resolve the dilemma at the end was also too much to swallow, and so the story lost another star.
Finally, while there were many other interesting characters in the story in Nella's timeline such as Lady Clarence, her maid, Lord Clarence, and Miss Berkwell, these figures were not as fleshed out as they could have been and would have given the story better plausibility.
“At this, I stopped in my tracks. A decade ago, in college, I'd graduated with a degree in British history. i'd passed my coursework with decent grades, but I'd always been most interested in what lay outside the textbooks. The dry, formulaic chapters simply didn't interest me as much as the musty, antiquated albums stored in the archives of old buildings, or the digitized images of faded ephemera--playbills, census records, passenger manifest lists--I found online. I could lose myself for hours in these seemingly meaningless documents, while my classmates met at coffee shops to study. I couldn't attribute my unconventional interests to anything specific, I only knew that classroom debates about civil revolution and power-hungry world leaders left me yawning. To me, the allure of history lay in the minutiae of life long ago, the untold secrets of ordinary people."
I liked The Lost Apothecary. Aside from the previously mentioned plot hole with Nell's business setup and the issue I had with Eliza, the story has a fun concept with otherwise well-developed main characters and good attention to historical detail. This book is recommended especially for folks who like strong female characters, stories based on the healing arts or herb lore, intrigue, and historical fiction based in London.