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Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

I was intrigued by the back page cover blurb of The Lost Apothecary and then read a favourable review in the Guardian, so I bought it. Jack read it before me (he’s a speed reader to my more ponderous pace) and seemed somewhat underwhelmed, muttering about ‘the modern story’ falling short.
So it was with quite low expectations that I began Sarah Penner’s highly lauded, New York Times bestseller.

Synopsis of The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

From a room within a room, hidden in the dark back streets of eighteenth-century London, a woman named Nella dispenses cleverly disguised poisons to women, to use against the men who are oppressing their lives. One day, Nella gets a strange feeling from a blush-coloured note in the secret chamber where deadly requests are left for later collection.

The arrival of fresh-faced, precocious twelve-year-old, Eliza into the shop, sets off a train of events that lead to catastrophe for Nella, the shop, the women who have poisoned their husbands over the years, and Eliza herself.

In modern day London, Caroline Parcewell is on a trip planned for herself and her husband, to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary. But having just discovered he has been cheating on her, Caroline makes the trip alone in an attempt to come to terms with how she wants to move forward with her life. A chance encounter with some mudlarkers (some what? you may well ask) leads her to find a long-lost link to the apothecary, and Caroline begins a search to uncover the story behind the unsolved London murders, and the fate of the apothecary who dispensed the poisons.

What follows is the parallel unfolding of the apothecary’s story and, along the way, Caroline’s resolution of her own demons.

My Review

When I began reading The Lost Apothecary, I couldn’t understand why Jack had had a problem with it. I found myself instantly pulled into the murky eighteenth-century world inhabited by Nella and her secret apothecary’s chamber, keen to follow the story as it led me into a world where a woman’s default station was wholly reliant on the goodwill of whichever male dominated her life. Having just finished reading Edith Wharton’s acclaimed Age of Reason, this world had become all too familiar to me and I enjoyed learning about the lives of ordinary people and how the elitism of the gentry clashed with their world.

I admit I found the parallel story of modern-day marriage woes and the American obsession with ‘finding yourself’ less compelling but nevertheless, it held my interest. As the novel progressed, I became more immersed in the historical storyline, and less and less convinced by the modern-day drama.

I found the series of coincidences that led Caroline to effortlessly uncover a mystery that seems to have alluded detectives, researchers, and historians for centuries, annoyingly incredible but only marginally less annoying than the author’s propensity to attribute multiple characters with ‘clicking their tongue at the back of their teeth’ (what does that even sound like?) and to describe every action she takes on her mobile phone, in great detail. Do I really need to hear such minutiae as,

‘Tapping my finger on Search the Main Catalogue, I typed…’
‘Swiping up on my phone to close the app?’

I’m afraid I also experienced ‘trauma overload’ at the number of times our latter-day heroine ‘felt a chill run through me’, ‘began to shake’ or ‘had to steady myself’. Does that really happen to people for anything less than an actual trauma, or Covid?

And just for the record, British police don’t tend to call women ‘Ma’am’, nor, to the best of my knowledge, do they even have badges, let alone wear them on their waistbands. Small details, I know, but enough to discredit the narrative and should have been picked up by the agent at edit stage.

Jack was right, the modern story was clunky and stretched credibility beyond belief but ultimately, the novel redeemed itself in the historical narrative. The ending veered dangerously towards Disney territory but managed to pull itself up short… just.


An engaging novel, an enviously good debut and something I would recommend but don’t be surprised if you find yourself spasmodically muttering “Oh for goodness sake!” or words to that effect.


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