Book Review: The Lost Apothecary, by 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.

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.

I have been eyeing this book up for over a year now, so I was delighted when I found the audiobook on Audible when I was home sick earlier this week. The cover is beautiful, and the plot is equally alluring – I have to confess that it was exactly the sort of thing to lure me in (alongside puppies and large quantites of chocolate!)

The three main characters Nella, Eliza and Caroline are well written and highly appealing personalities who complement each other well through the story. Eliza is just the right level of hope and innocence to balance out jaded Nella, who dilligently records the names of every woman she has sold poisons to, alongside the names of every man who she helped to poison. She also records each of their stories, along with her own, in her heart, and it is this which weighs her down heavily when she crosses paths with Eliza at the beginning of our story, which is later described in the ‘present day’ chapters as ‘the beginning of the end’. After listening to the book, I read this great interview with the author (https://chireviewofbooks.com/2021/03/02/the-indelible-mark-of-women-in-the-lost-apothecary/) where she talks about the decision to include Eliza, which I thought was a nice side-story, and an insight into her writing process.

There is a strong feminist theme running through the book, with the apothecary viewing her role as protecting women, and protecting their names through the ages. Nella says “For many of these women, this may be the only place their names are recorded. The only place they will be remembered.” It is an idea introduced to her by her mother, back when the apothecary had a slightly more honourable reputation, and it is a responsibility that Nella takes very seriously, even to the point of risking the discovery of her clients. Though as Caroline discovers when picking apart the clues left behind to attempt to discover the truth of ‘The Lost Apothecary’….

“History does not record the intricacies of womens relationships with each other. They are not to be uncovered”

So, how was it listening to the audiobook rather than having a physical copy in my hand? Honestly, I was gripped. And the most excrutiating part of the audiobook was that you can’t just read faster when the story starts to get especially exciting – It goes at the same pace no matter the subject, which was both agonising and rather suspenseful. The most frustrating part of all however, was that when it got close to bed time and I wanted to convince myself that i could just carry on reading, my Other Half could successfully prove that this was a bad idea by looking at how long there was left of the book to listen to. As he put it, going to sleep at 2am isn’t worth it – listen to it tomorrow.

The biggest issue I have is that I feel like I need a physical copy of the book to keep forever, for dipping in and out purposes. I’m not entirely sure that this was what my other half had in mind during our Talk ( The Talk ), so I will resist for now…

Overall it was a brilliantly written book, paced just right so that the present day and 18th century timelines don’t ruin the surprise (or suspense) for each other. I am fully anticipating re-listening to it sometime very soon, and would strongly recommend it to fans of historical fiction who enjoy dual-timeline mysteries.

If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy;

The Familiars, by Stacey Halls; Book Review

Bridgerton: The Duke and I, by Julia Quinn

Book Review: The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brian

Published by BeckyBookBlog

My name is Becky and I run a blog about Books

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner

  1. I struggle a lot with audiobooks, my mind always wander… I have the same problem with a physical book anyway haha! But at least, a physical version helps me to keep my feet on the ground, if it makes sense? I am glad you still enjoyed this one, I heard mixed reviews so I’m glad to finally read a positive review.

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