Review The Lost Apothecary – Sarah Penner

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.

CW: infidelity and sexual abuse (of minors), the effects of poisoning, miscarriage and suicide. None of this is graphic or in detail.

I am finding it difficult to review this book, because I loved half of it… and really didn’t care about the other half. When I saw this gorgeous cover on Netgalley I was immediately drawn to it, and reading the start of the blurb about women killing their husbands made me request this book. Had I read further I would have known that this book follows two plot lines… which in itself isn’t a bad thing. Apart from that I didn’t care for one of them.

But let’s start with the good. This book tells us about Nella, whose mother used to run an apothecary to help and heal women with anything like period(pains), mental health, abortion and everything regarding pregnancy and birth. Awesome. When her mother dies Nella takes over the apothecary, but when wronged by her fiancé she decides to extend the help she provides to women by selling poison. This is set around 1790, where women had very little rights and it was almost impossible for them to divorce their husbands, making poison a last resort (though this is not discussed in the book which is a real shame. It would have been nice to have a bit more motivation as to the why all these women needed to poison these man). Through her business Nella meets the 12 year old Eliza, with whom she forms an unusual but very special friendship. And then things go wrong… I would have loved to read a whole book about these two characters and their relationship. Nella has a lot of struggles, but she is incredibly strong and deals with them ever so well. Eliza is a smart, kind and fun girl who is very headstrong and doesn’t take no for an answer. Although I find it hard to believe that a 12-year old girl who has grown up on a farm has never heard of ‘monthly bleeding’, I did really like her as a character overall. If this book had given more time to them, establish an apprenticeship and let them help more women, it would have been the perfect read.

Instead their chapters get alternated with those of Caroline in the present day. She is an American woman who goes on holiday in London after she finds out her husband is cheating on her. She discovers an old apothecary vial and decides to find out what it’s story is. And I didn’t care… I didn’t really like Caroline as a character from fairly early on when she was surprised people judge her looks and still gave her customer service after she got stuck in the rain. She decides to keep things for herself without any good reason, even when she gets in a police interrogation and is accused of murder. She thinks very highly of herself for the discoveries she makes and treats them as if she solved the Ripper case… while what she finds is certainly nice, but not really That big of a deal. She doesn’t do anything special and all the answers fall into her lap with a few library searches. Certainly not worthy of it to be labeled as ‘secret’. And then there are all here inner struggles about what to do about her cheating husband. Which of course is valid. But I didn’t care for because it took page time I would rather have spent with Nella and Eliza.

Overall, I feel this book could have been a Lot stronger if it had left out the story line of Carolina. It really doesn’t serve a purpose of its own and is only used to further Nella’s story… which it could have done just fine by itself. Instead more time should have been given to establishing the relationship between Nella and Eliza. In this way we could also have gotten a better sense of the time period, and maybe actually have learned something. This story had a lot of potential of really being something special and impactful, but as it is it is merely light entertainment. Such a shame… it is the author’s debut though, so I will keep an eye out for what Penner gets up to next.

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