Title: The Lost Apothecary
Author: Sarah Penner
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: March 2nd, 2021 (Park Row)
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.
In 18th century London, Nella has turned her once respectable apothecary business into a secret shop that dispenses poisons to help women who are being harmed by men in any way. When her latest customer turns out to be an inquisitive twelve year old girl on an errand for her mistress, the two form an unexpected friendship, but the series of events that follow place not only Nella but every woman who has ever sought her aid at risk of discovery. Caroline Parcewell arrives in present day London for what should have been a celebration of her tenth wedding anniversary and finds an old apothecary vial near the Thames River. Her curiosity drives her to dig deeper and she soon realizes that she may be holding a link to a 200 year old mystery.
“First, there was trust. Then, there was betrayal. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot be betrayed by someone you do not trust.”
Dual timeline narration is one of my favourite styles for historical fiction, and that combined with the intriguing synopsis of this book had me adding it to my TBR in seconds. I loved the writing style and with the way 18th century London was described, it was so easy to imagine the streets, shops and Nella’s hidden apothecary. This book was very well paced and I had no trouble at all following the story as it alternated between the two eras. As most historical fiction novels do, this too led me to try and learn more about some aspects of the story, in particular, mudlarking, which is how Caroline finds the vial.
The only thing I didn’t like about this book was Caroline’s POV. I understand the significance of her plotline and how her personal situation somewhat mirrors that of many women Nella helped in the past, but I was way more interested in getting back to how Caroline figures out the mystery. However, her character arc by the end of the book was good and the whole business of unravelling the old case and she grew a lot as a person. Also, while I liked Nella and Eliza’s storyline, I feel like we didn’t get to spend enough time with them to get a full idea of their characters.
I really appreciated that the story was kept interesting from beginning to end and the tension was maintained really well. The two timelines were very much in sync and nothing was revealed too early, which made this a fun and exciting read. If you’re looking for a unique historical fiction novel, I’d definitely recommend this one!
Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments below!