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.
I adored The Lost Apothecary, I loved being in the back streets of 17th Century London before being brought headlong into present day London and its maze of alleys and skyscrapers.
What I loved even more were Penners fantastic cast of characters, limited in number but what an impact they made. Nella, the 17th century apothecary who sold potions to women with everyday maladies, but underneath the darker tones of poison, of potions designed to kill the men that suppressed them, that engaged in extra martial affairs, ruined house maids to sate their own desires. She was aged, ailing, troubled and scared by the man she thought loved her, her mothers legacy somehow despoiled by divergence into the dark arts. A loner until Ella came in through the door and how I loved Ella, a fearless twelve year old who stole my heart. Penner’s portrayal of her was one of the highlights, her fierce determination to learn but also her respect for Nella, her maturity in seeing something in Nella that pained her, that needed to be brought to the surface and confronted so brilliantly translated in Penner’s narrative.
And then we had Caroline, an American in present day London, who reeled from her husbands affair, who sought alone time to think, to decide her future. What she didn’t reckon on was her reawakening of her love of history, of mudlarking on the Thames and the discovery of a glass vial, the imprint of a bear and the crazy journey it would take her on.
It was the intertwining of the past and the present and the distinct voices of those three women that stood out. The similarities between the suppression of women in the 17th century somehow no different to present day. The woman deemed less important, Caroline’s dreams cast to one side to stay by her husbands side, to support his career, the anguish of that other woman, yet forgiveness expected, the norm restored. Nella, deeply hurt by her love, cast aside, mere collateral in his life. Eliza, the housemaid, fair game for the master of the house, the wandering hand, the entitlement to take what he wanted when he wanted.
It was their determination to fight back, to look within themselves to discover who they were really were that gave Penner so much to work with. She didn’t stop until she had wrung every last drop of emotion and anguish from them and indeed from me as the reader. I was with Nella and Eliza as they battled to save The Apothecary, ran from authorities, explored the poisons dispensed, the reasons, the women that knocked at door, desperate for a quick fix. For Caroline, I empathised with her loss of identity and the fight to reclaim who she was , could relate with my own personal life experinces.
Penner didn’t forget that we also wanted intrigue, mystery, that thrill of wondering what would happen next. She built it slowly, laid the foundations with some fantastic historical detail, left hints of past anguish as she rushed us headlong to a fast and heart stopping climax. We were left with questions that I needed answers to, and Penner didn’t disappoint with the answers, answers that were surprising but somehow satisfying.
As you can probably tell I loved The Lost Apothecary, and will be waiting with baited breath for whatever Penner has in store in her next novel.
I would like to thank Legend Press for a copy of The Lost Apothecary to read and review and for inviting My Bookish Blogspot to participate in the blogtour.
About the author