BOOK REVIEW: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

Title: The Lost Apothecary

Author: Sarah Penner

Book Length: 316 pages

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Thriller, Contemporary, Crime

Read Start Date: September 30, 2022

Read Finish Date: October 18, 2022

Brief Summary of the Plot from Goodreads:  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: As of writing this post, this book has a 3.76 rating on Goodreads, which isn’t stellar for a mainstream, popular book. 37% gave the book 4 stars, while 27% gave the book 3 stars. I read this book about a year ago as an audiobook, and I remember liking it more than I did when I read it in paperback. I had given it 4 star last year, but after rereading the book, I’m switching to 3 stars. Maybe thinking it was better was due to my delirium of being a new mom and never sleeping. Anyway, I liked the story of Eliza and Nella more than Caroline. In fact, Caroline’s story really annoyed me to the point where I was rolling my eyes frequently.

I think the issue is that I just didn’t like Caroline as a character. I didn’t relate to her one bit. Caroline began the application process to attend graduate school at the University of Cambridge, as was her dream. Her then boyfriend, James, had been “adamantly against the idea” because he had plans to propose to her. The second he did “Cambridge could have fallen of the map, for all I cared–Cambridge and advanced degrees and every novel ever written by Charles Dickens. From the moment I wrapped my arms around James’ neck at the end of that pier and whispered yes, my identity as an aspiring historian rusted away, replaced with my identity as his soon-to-be-wife.” Then she takes a stable, secure job at her parent’s farm, while James steadily rises the corporate accounting ladder.

Because I guess America doesn’t offer masters degrees in history?

Regardless, even if the University she wanted to attend was in Australia, I’m still wondering, why the hell couldn’t she have gone and done her masters and still been a wife? Especially since kids were far off in the distance. “Though I’d wanted kids early in our marriage, James didn’t want to deal with the stress of long hours and a young family. And so just as he had climbed the corporate ladder every day for a decade, so too did I put that little pink pill on the tip of my tongue and think to myself, Someday.” I mean, 10 years is a long time to wait for “someday”. So Caroline puts her academic, career, AND family dreams on hold for a decade? Ummm, no thank you. There would have definitely been a Me shaped hole in the wall long before it got to the 10 year mark.

Also, from everything the book tells us of James, he doesn’t seem like he would be spending all that much time with the kids anyway…so not sure why they couldn’t have had kids early on in the marriage, since Caroline would have been the primary care giver (and since she wasn’t going back to school).

But okay, whatever, they waited 10 years. And now that they are trying for a baby, Caroline finds out he’s cheating, because, wait for it, he’s bored with his predictable, stable, and secure life. Eye roll. And then he tries to gaslight Caroline into believing that it was all HER fault! I can’t even with this guy. He’s such a piece of garbage (there are other supporting examples in the book of this) that I can’t believe Caroline didn’t notice the stench until she caught him cheating.

In all honesty, I’m not ever sure the Caroline story was really required because we learned everything that Caroline did from the Nella and Eliza storyline’s anyway.

Nella and Eliza on the other hand have stories that are much more interesting and include thrill, murder, intrigue, etc. Nella’s mother was an apothecary who dispensed remedies for women. When Nella’s mother died, Nella became romantically involved with a man. “In the weeks to follow, we fell terribly, wonderfully in love. My sea of grief grew shallower; I could breath again, and I could envision the future–a future with Frederick. I couldn’t have known that mere months after falling in love with him, I would dispense a fatal dose of rat poison to kill him. The first betrayal. The first victim. The beginning of a stained legacy.”

While I found Nella and Eliza’s story to be more interesting (I am also a big lover of the horror and true crime genres) Nella is, for all intents and purposes, a serial killer, and therefore while seemingly sympathetic, when you look deeper into her character, she is also a little dark. I mean, she’s literally been the reason why countless people are dead. And she doesn’t seem to care — or rather — she is glad that they are dead because they deserved it for being adulterous or lecherous or whatever else they did to affront the women in their lives. So in short, none of the characters are particularly relatable. I can understand wanting to harm someone who has betrayed you, but actually doing the harm is a whole different ball game.

I know that I’ve rambled a bit in this review, and I hope that I’ve made sense. Would I recommend this book? Yes…but there are other ones which I would pick up first.

Friday 56, October 7, 2022: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

Welcome to Friday 56! Hosted by Freda’s Voice, you turn to page 56 or 56% in any book or reading device and pick a sentence that grabs you.

For a moment, I considered the idea of throwing in the towel; maybe it was time to find a sandwich and plan a real itinerary.

The moment this thought crossed my mind, I shook my head. That sounded exactly like something James would say. As rain continued to batter the glass windows of the library, I willed myself to ignore this voice of reason–the same one that had told me to rip up my Cambridge application and encouraged me to take a job at the family farm. Instead, I asked myself what the old Caroline would do–the Caroline of a decade ago, the zealous student not yet dazzled by a diamond on her finger.”

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

By page 56 of the book we have been introduced to the 2 main characters of the story, Nella and Caroline.

Nella is the owner of a hidden, secret apothecary shop in 1791, which dispenses poisons. Nella only sells to women, often times to dispatch the misbehaving men in their lives. We don’t know too much else about Nella at the moment, other than she used to have a reputable Apothecary (once owned by her late mother), but after a betrayal at the hands of a man (we don’t really know the details of this betrayal yet), she turned to the dark side of potions, elixirs and herbs.

Caroline’s story takes place in “present day” England. An American history major, Caroline has spent the past 10 years preparing to be the dutiful mother. She set aside her dream of going to Cambridge to pursue a higher level education in history, when she accepted the marriage proposal of her then boyfriend (now husband) James. Unable to find a job with merely a bachelors degree in history, Caroline settled into a cozy / stable job at her parent’s farm, where she remained for the last decade. On the other hand, over the past 10 years, James, a brilliant accountant, has risen through the ranks and is close to becoming partner of the firm. It was never the right time to have a baby, but with James’ career finally where it should be, the time has come, and they start trying.

Caroline couldn’t be happier, that is, until she finds out James has been cheating on her. The next day she hops on a plane to England to go on the trip that should have been their 10 year anniversary celebration.

So far, I don’t like Caroline very much. I don’t see why she couldn’t have gone to Cambridge, if they were going to wait to have children anyway. Or why wait to have children, when Caroline was just going to work at the family farm anyway? The whole premise seems silly to be honest. The author has written her to be someone who seems to think that motherhood and a career are somehow mutually exclusive things.

Let’s see how things progress.

First Chapter, First Paragraph, Tuesday October 4, 2022

It’s First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday! Hosted by Socrates Book Reviews this is where you share the first paragraph of one (or in my case sometimes several) of the books that you are currently reading.

She would come at daybreak–the woman whose letter I held in my hands, the woman whose name I did not yet know.

I knew neither her age nor where she lived. I did not know her rank in society nor the dark things of which she dreamed when night fell. She could be a victim or a transgressor. A new wife or a vengeful widow. A nursemaid or a courtesan.

But despite all that I did not know, I understood this: the woman knew exactly who she wanted dead.”

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner