Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner


This novel has my vote for the most gorgeous cover of 2021. I can't stop staring at it! 

The Lost Apothecary  was one of the books I've most eagerly awaited this year, and it didn't disappoint. It moves back and forth between 1791 and present day London, and I found both settings equally interesting. 

Caroline Parcewell has arrived in London alone-on what was supposed to be a tenth wedding anniversary trip with her husband James. Instead, she fled Ohio after finding out James was having an affair. Heartbroken and disillusioned, Caroline decides to come to London herself, to have time to think. Her first day there, she takes a last minute mud-larking trip to the Thames River, and finds a small glass bottle with an intriguing bear mark on it. 

Mud larking, by the way, is when people actually walk along the banks of the River Thames and search the mud for artifacts the river has left ashore. People have been doing this for centuries (some made their living from it). People used the Thames for centuries as a dumping ground for everything, so yes, items hundreds of years old continually wash up on shore. This tiny bottle gives Caroline just the distraction she needs from her marriage, and she dives into discovering more about it. 

1791 London finds Nella living and working in a small apothecary shop disguised behind a false wall in another shop set back in a small alley, making it hard to find. Nella helps women with ailments, but she also helps them dispose of men who have done them wrong-she concocts poisons for her clients. Men who have cheated, men who have abused, men who have ruined women's lives. These women secretly leave notes in a grain barrel outside the shop, and Nella makes the poison, keeping a book of records for each time she's done it over the past twenty years. All this stems from Nella's own grief and anger over a man who ruined her life. 

But it is all taking a toll on Nella's health; she's convinced for every poison, a little bit of it eats away at her from the inside, making her health fail and her death creep closer. But just when she's ready to give up, Eliza shows up, and in just a few brief days, life changes drastically and dramatically for Nella and Eliza. 

Caroline, meanwhile, is hot on the trail, tracking down who this bottle belonged to and what it meant. Befriending a researcher at the British Library, she starts digging into every little clue she uncovers, revealing the fascinating story of Nella's apothecary shop. 

This was a great read! It's more than just a story about a female apothecary who helped women in their time of need. It's about women being victims of other people's choices, and how they fought back. Caroline's story is about a marriage that, while it could be happy, wasn't at all where she needed to be to grow. And clearly her husband needed more, too. Freedom is a big theme in this novel.  

You'll find yourself unable to put this down. I myself was a bit jealous of Caroline's trip to London, and her discovery of what would make her the happiest. In another life, by golly, I could imagine pursuing just what Caroline does in London. 

Rating: 5/6 for a historical tale that pulls you in and keeps you turning the pages-a favorite read of mine this year! 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio

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