Forget healing salves or soothing tinctures. This apothecary specializes in one thing: helping women fight back.
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Why I love it
Let’s face it, I’m the kind of reader who thrills in time travel. I’m obsessed with history, but not history as a set of events locked in and legitimized by a set of dates in time and space; I am obsessed with history because it is alive. History moves. History changes. Different storylines recede, others come forward, statues topple, new voices and bodies that were once repressed emerge. I was predisposed to love The Lost Apothecary, a novel that toggles between past and present, where the lives of women are woven together to recreate history.
18th-century London: Penner had me at the apothecary itself, a kind of reliquary where poisons are sold by the mysterious Nella to women who seek revenge on the oppressive men in their lives. The city seethes with sexist sins against women, and yet, the women and girls who navigate their worlds turn out to be tenacious and brilliant. With her potions, Nella gives them a material means for controlling their own lives and fortunes. But this delicious storyline does not sit silent and still inside the vestiges of invisible history...
Present-day London: Caroline Parcewell is part historian, part detective, part time-traveling explorer. Upon discovering a centuries-old vial in the Thames, she begins to investigate the history of an underground apothecary. She examines the artifacts of the past as if her own life could be put into pieces and reassembled alongside the women and girls in her city who spoke back to their culture.
The Lost Apothecary reminds me of my favorite kind of stories involving women and girls, the ones where an author or artist embarks on an archeological dig through history in order to unbury alternative storylines. This novel is a reclamation project, a resistance narrative, a bringing back to life the stories and bodies of women and girls who save us every single day of our lives. Throw in a juicy mystery, murder, intrigue, and an entire strata of secret-keeping, and you get a novel that lifts up the skirt of history to reveal women running the world.
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.