Life can suck. We hurt ourselves and each other. We get sick, or we lose others to sickness. We lose our parents, or our children, or both. There is poverty, hunger, homelessness. It’s all so much, this world. So, it’s no wonder that we often look for a little magic. And when we don’t find it, we are disappointed. And that disappointment makes us angry, cynical, or worse.
The Lost Apothecary, written by Sarah Penner, reminds us that we do have glimmers of enchantment at our very fingertips on this place we call home, the third rock from the sun. We just need to look for it, and when found, use it wisely. And thus, nature is magic.
This dark story ping pongs back and forth between 1791 and present day. Circa 1791, we meet Nella, a weathered and lonely apothecary who helps women poison their cheating or abusive husbands. She will help a woman, but never hurt a woman. Her poisons are only for men. And it’s all done on the down low, which has given her quite the reputation. Women leave a written message and leave it in a hidden spot on Bear Alley in London, and this mysterious apothecary, an evil tooth fairy if you will, fulfills their requests. She does this by giving the women elixirs she’s made by using different ingredients found in nature (bugs, herbs, spices, plants, etc). We learn that Nella, who I call the pharmaceutical barn witch, has had her own share of betrayal and loss, and this leads her to use her talents for evil. And she puts her concoctions either in food, or in a vial with a bear imprinted upon it. Her methods are awesome to read about, because who knew this and that, and a pinch of that, could kill you?
One day, Nella meets twelve-year-old Eliza, the youngest client she has ever had. And she’s immediately unsure of whether she can follow through with an order that involves a child. Eliza, a curious preteen who displays her innocence through fantastical beliefs, is enthralled by the lonely Nella, and a friendship emerges that changes both their lives. Eliza is an interesting character. She is more afraid of what she can’t see. But she’ll watch a man die, look around, and be like, “yo, you wanna go eat some lunch?”. Nella, ever the realist, reminds Eliza that there is no magic in this harsh world, while Eliza serves as a reminder to Nella that anything is possible.
Jump ahead to present day. We meet Caroline. A 34-year-old American woman who has just learned of her husband’s infidelity. She goes to London on what should have been their ten year anniversary trip. Instead of celebrating this milestone, her love of history is rekindled. While in London, Caroline finds a strange bottle with a bear imprinted upon it. And so begins an adventure to find the origins of the bottle, and the mysterious, nameless, apothecary she’s learned helped to murder trifling men two hundred years ago. Through Caroline’s search, she finds herself, and recognizes the importance of doing what makes her feel fulfilled as opposed to what others expect from her.
Overall, I liked the connection between 1791 and present day. The impact that men had on all three female characters can’t be overstated. Being a woman is hard, no matter the time period. Perhaps the author was making the point that men can be shit and this is what drove the characters to do what they did. I didn’t really buy it, though. Even though I despised the men, I never found myself saying ‘“good” when they were gone. Call me crazy but I’d rather they suffer? While I never have an issue with vigilante justice, I didn’t find myself pulling for the demise of these men, and thought surely we are better at revenge than this. Nella’s methods were clever, but hardly honorable. And it wasn’t lost on me that the women in 1791 used poisoned to try to get the life they wanted, while the Caroline’s husband, James, poisons himself in the present to try to get what he wanted. And in both instances, the separation of two centuries does not give anyone what they sought.
One thing that bothered me: Caroline’s cavalier behavior when she doesn’t know if she’s pregnant or not. I say this as a woman who has miscarried. While I’m probably just being sensitive, it hurt me to hear her drinking two glasses of wine, coffee, and putting off the pregnancy test when she knew it was a possibility. And bringing it up to the reader as she’s doing it. It was odd to read, especially when you see the impact such a loss had on Nella. When you feel robbed of a life that could have been, you don’t want to hear about someone else being reckless. Even if it is a work of fiction.
Rating: 3/5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Dream Cast 🎥 🎞 :
Nella: Judy Dench
Eliza: Julia Butters
Caroline: Anna Kendrick
James: Dave Franco