Kate’s Review: “The Lost Apothecary”

Book: “The Lost Apothecary” by Sarah Penner

Publishing Info: Park Row, March 2021

Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Description: 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.

Review: Thank you to Park Row and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this novel!

As a true crime fan worth her salt, I can tell you that a trend seen in many women killers is the use of poisons and toxins within their murders. You have Mary Anne Cotton, Belle Gunness, Giulia Tofana, and numerous others. Poison has been deemed a ‘woman’s murder weapon’ (though, to be fair, plenty of men have used it over the years as well), and while I haven’t done MUCH deep diving into it as a means of murder, I feel like I should. Even more so now that I’ve read “The Lost Apothecary” by Sarah Penner, a dual timeline and multi-perspective narrative that involves women who are wronged by the men in their lives, and an apothecary owner who creates poisons to take care of such issues. Because why do things the direct way when you can just dump a vial into someone’s food and call it a night?

“The Lost Apothecary” takes place in two different timelines. The first has two perspectives, those of Nella, the apothecary owner who mixes poisons for wronged or desperate women, and Eliza, a servant girl sent to the apothecary to fetch a poison meant to be ingested by her employer (at the behest of the woman of the house). The second is that of Caroline, an American woman who has travelled to London on what was meant to be her tenth anniversary trip, though she has just found out about her husband’s infidelity. What connects the two timelines and three perspectives is a glass vial, lost in time but found by chance by Caroline. Penner is very careful to find the strings and threads that bring the two stories and three characters together, and draws parallels between all of their lives as women who have been aggrieved in one way or another by the men in their orbits. In the modern day we see Caroline start to find the puzzle pieces about Nella and Eliza, and in the past we see the path that Nella and Eliza take that may lead to their undoing and doom. The mystery of what happened to Nella and Eliza as found out through their perspectives and that of what Caroline finds is a fun device that kept me interested, especially as things in the modern day started to harken back to some of the, shall we say, ‘themes’ of the 18th century plot line. I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say that poison is timeless…. On top of all that, it did mostly keep me guessing until the end, even if there were some convenient moments that felt a little forced or hard to believe. But I was having enough fun that I could forgive it. I also just liked learning about all the women, and found all of them pretty believable in their portrayals.

But what I liked most in “The Lost Apothecary” is how these two timelines slowly unfolded not only the fates of a long lost poison shop and those who were involved with it, but how they had similar grievances across centuries about abusive and toxic men and misogyny, and what that does to women. While it’s true that the degrees of the shitbird men in this book, especially the ones that have impacted the three main character’s lives, run a gamut, we still see how even in a 21st century setting a woman can have her life upended and set adrift because of power dynamics that society has set in place in terms of expectations on how a man and a woman should be, especially in a marriage. I felt for Caroline, not just because of her husband’s transgressions, but because of how much she sacrificed for him and their relationship all because she had been told all her life that was just what you do. And while Caroline may not be turning to poison as a solution, back in the 18th century Penner paints a very clear picture as to why women from all backgrounds may see poison as the only way that they can escape a really terrible situation when it comes to the men in their lives. Some of the stories that we learn of are truly horrifying, and it makes Nella’s shop seem more like a place for justice for the forgotten, instead of a place where murderers gather their wares. I got a fun and cathartic thrill, which was ultimately what I wanted from this book.

“The Lost Apothecary” is a fun historical mystery thriller, and one that I would definitely recommend to those who want a little nasty catharsis when it comes to patriarchy smashing.

Rating 8: A wicked and satisfying historical thriller, “The Lost Apothecary” is a slow burn of a cathartic tale of revenge against the ever present patriarchy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Lost Apothecary” is included on the Goodreads lists “Dual Time Mysteries”, and “[ATY 2021] – Female Villains or Criminals”.

Find “The Lost Apothecary” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

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