The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner
Life can be dangerous for women, whether that is in 1791 or the present day. Both have to struggle to make their mark, leave a legacy behind. Nella is an apothecary who offers cures only to women from her cramped hidden quarters in London, recording their names in her ledger. Caroline is discovering in the present day that an American life of stability is not all that it seems, and that maybe she has to look for the inconsistencies to find a way through her dilemmas. As the vivid narrative swings between two time periods, it seems that women must act together in order to make discoveries that can change lives and leave the mark of their trials. As Nella makes her way round a place which encloses her in secrets of the past as she deals with women who want the ultimate solution to their troubles, she is confronted by a surprising girl who is eager to learn. Caroline has travelled to London to consider a betrayal, and discovers secrets of the past which leap forward into the present day. This is a book of research on several levels, as Eliza must learn how to help with secrets, Caroline wants to reveal the tantalizing story behind an inconspicuous vial, and the author has completed a huge amount of research in order to find the age old secrets of poisons and the uses of natural ingredients. It is a powerful book of what women choose to do, and the possible effects of their actions. I found it an exciting and entrancing novel, and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.
The book begins with Nella reading a letter requesting a poison, for a woman to kill her husband. The disturbing request is one thing, the fact that the person who comes to pick up the poisoned egg is a twelve year old girl is surprising. Nella has seen to be shocked; she has spent her entire life in a cramped room, among the jars of ingredients, learning from her mother the combinations of herbs plants and even creatures that can heal women’s ailments. The difference is in the cures that she now offers, the poisons that can stop a man from living, from damaging further the lives of women and girls desperate enough to consult her. She dispenses help, receives money, records the women’s names in her book. Now it seems as if pain is being manifested in her body and mind, as she remembers why she went beyond her mother’s practice. Caroline is a young woman once deeply in love with the literature of another age, the history of thought in a time when women had fewer options. Not that she has explored many for herself; impressed by James at college, she falls in with his plans to marry and live a safe, predictable life, denying her interest and ability in research. It is only when she arrives in London, overwhelmed by a life changing discovery, that she is urged to look for the different, to be open to the possibility of more than what happens on the surface. As Eliza becomes involved in Nella’s work, Caroline feels compelled to discover more, even when it seems likely to upset everything.
This is a deeply atmospheric story of discovery and fear, of pushing against the bounds of roles and expectations, of determination and solidarity. I found it a brilliantly researched novel that that never slowed down the narrative to deliver no doubt hard won facts. There are even poisons and cures detailed at the back of the book, not to be confused! I found Caroline’s progress fascinating, and became involved in her hunt for the truth. Nella’s story reflects the desperate need to acknowledge women’s situations in the late eighteenth century and for much of history. This is a wonderful debut in historical and contemporary fiction, and I recommend it.