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#BookReview: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

My dear bookish friends!

Today I have a review for you of one book I wanted to read for sooo long – and I’m so happy I finally got to it! If you are a fan of historical fiction, like dual timelines, are a historian or archeologist, do keep on reading!

Hope you enjoyđź’•

The Synopsis

A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course.Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman.
Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.

One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.

In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

My Review

I love historical fiction novels, but this one was extra special! The Lost Apothecary is set in London, both in the late 18th century as well as in the present day. Told from three perspectives, we not only get an impressive and fascinating look at multifaceted characters, but also at London’s hidden alleyways and secret places of people who didn’t want to be found. On top of that, we also come to realise how close medicine and poison really are, and how easily a bit too much of one can turn into the other.

Each one of the main characters was incredibly fascinating to me and added a great layer of depth to the story. Nella, the apothecary working in the late 17-hundreds, has turned her medicinal business into something more, something bigger, something…darker. Motivated by her dark secrets and sad past, Nella has sworn to help other women get rid of their abusive husbands or other assailants – only male ones, though. Nella was a fascinating character. It took a while for us to find out why she chose to change her normal apothecary business into the poison apothecary, and it made us understand her why’s and how’s so much better – even if she was, basically, a murderer.

In present day London, we meet another main character: Caroline, who has come to the city in what should have been her 10-year anniversary celebrations with her partner, but as circumstances would have it, she came on her own. In the hopes of distracting herself from the shocking discoveries about her husband, she joins a mudlarking group by the Thames. Not thinking she will find anything of much worth, Caroline’s profound interest in history is tickled when she pulls an old vial from the mud in the riverbed. I loved finding out about mudlarking. I didn’t know it was a thing, or that a word existed for it! I was always thinking it was mere luck that sometimes, people pulled out old artifacts by accident when walking by the shores of lakes and rivers and seeing something shiny in the mud, but I had no idea that actual groups dedicated their free time to the discovery of old objects that have been hidden by the water.

Caroline is fascinated by the old vial she finds and – in the hopes of finding out more about its origin – she makes her way to the British Library. I loved the scenes set in there. Gaynor, the map specialist she turns to, becomes a good friend and helps her both with the vial, as well as later in much more trying times. I practically felt like I was there with Caroline, researching with her where the vial might come from, looking over Gaynor’s shoulder when she spread out yet another historical city map on the table, looking at the tall shelves full of old and wise books.

Caroline finds out that the vial probably comes from some kind of shop in a place called Bear Alley… might it have been an apothecary once? But why isn’t any information on the old glass bottle? No address, no shop name, no hint on the content? Could it be that maybe somebody didn’t want the vial to lead back to its place of origin? And could all that have to do with the apothecary slash murderer Caroline just read about?

“[T]he vial […] represented a crossroads, the abandonment of secrets and pain in favor of embracing the truth – in favor of embracing magic. Magic, with its enchanting, irresistible appeal, just like a fairy tale.”

Back in the past, we meet the third main character, Eliza, a servant girl who comes to Nella’s backshop on behalf of her mistress. While there, she finds herself absolutely entranced by Nella’s jobs, the poison apothecary, the herbs and spices that – in the right amount – turn medicine into something deadly. Soon though, she is not only fascinated by the business, but also by the busy woman running it.

Every chapter, I found myself wanting to read on, to find out more about the characters – both in the past as well as the present time. Each of them has their own problems to solve, their own hopes and dreams and wishes, and I was hoping to see them all come true for them. There were many instances when I found myself wondering if there was some supernatural element playing a role in the story as well, and up until the last page I couldn’t really tell! I liked this (possible) element of magical realism, as it added another layer of depth to the story!

There wasn’t much that I disliked – if I can even call it that. At some points I felt as if some answers and solutions Caroline found came a bit too easy to her sometimes – a bit too coincidental maybe. Another thing that bugged me a tiny bit was that I would have wished for Nella and Eliza’s relationship to be more developed in the past. They were both exactly what the other needed in their lives, but we don’t really get to actually see them get that close, espcially also because the time they spent together was actually very short. I liked it though and would have loved to see more of the actual blossoming of their connection.

In the past, both Eliza and Nella are haunted by the ghosts of their pasts (in Eliza’s case it could even be actual ghosts!), and the consequences of their actions could be lethal – in so many ways. In the here and now, Caroline’s character starts of with a big internal struggle. Having found out that her husband has been unfaithful, she is starting to question things that have weighed her down for years. I liked that she finally started to follow her dreams now, even though the reason for it was not a happy one. Her husband James had my blood boiling many times, and I was hoping desperately that Caroline wouldn’t believe his sugar-coated lies anymore.

This intriguing dual-timeline story is a must-read for all fans of historical novels, but also for archeologists and history fans. The conflicts, hardships, research and discoveries that happened both in the 18th as well as the 21st century are working so well together, and it was fascinating to read about the same part of London hundreds of years apart! The writing was so eloquent and lovely, and it had me hooked right from the start.

4.5 stars from me for this wonderful book that I highly recommend!

Thank you all so much for reading, and do let me know what you think if you pick up The Lost Apothecary too!

xoxo

Noly

P.S. I buddy-read The Lost Apothecary with my friend Stephen, and I loved discussing the story with him! Go check out his brilliant review here.

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