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.
Sarah Penner’s debut novel, THE LOST APOTHECARY, is an intriguing window and a brief look at a moment in time as seen through the eyes of three women. Set both in the late 18th century (1791) and the present day, the story shifts from Nella, a once reputable apothecary whose backstory is one of tragedy and heartbreak. To a chance meeting with the young 12 year-old lady’s maid, Eliza Fanning, through to the present day. Where, our third POV is that of Caroline, a young American woman who should be, by all rights, celebrating her tenth wedding anniversary with her husband, in London.
The story shifts back and forth between events unfolding in the past when Eliza steps into Nella’s secret apothecary, and sets in motion a chain of events that while, at the time seem devastating, are in the end maybe somewhat fortuitous for both Nella and Eliza. Altering the course of both their lives.
What we get is a snapshot of life in the dark recesses of low-class London, and what’s brought Nella to the place she finds herself in when she first gets to meet Eliza, a blissfully naive but clever young girl swept up in her mistresses machinations and an act of revenge.
Woven into their story comes Caroline, fleeing her husband’s infidelity, and landing in London without so much as clue with what to do with herself, trying to work through her grief and shock. And, after an odd encounter mudlarking down on the Thames, Caroline finds herself given a distraction through unravelling a seemingly simple and benign mystery, when she finds a small blue-tinted glass vial with an unusual etching of a crude bear on it. What is the vial, and who did it belong too?
And so we’re slowly sucked into first one mystery, as Caroline tries to find out more about not only the vial but, in doing so, herself. All the while we’re privy to unfolding events taking place as Nella helps young Eliza deliver poisoned eggs to Eliza’s mistress, Mrs. Amwell, with the intent of poisoning her unfaithful husband.
What Penner sets up here is a compelling and page-turning series of events that made for compulsive reading. I couldn’t put the book down, I was so caught up in each character’s stories, wanting to know more. Penner delivers a heartbreaking backstory, as we learn more about Nella, her mother’s early death, the betrayal by her lover, the loss of her only child, and how she ends up dispensing poison to women and only women with two rules in play.
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.
This is a short, fast read with plenty of depth to all the main characters, easy to read flowing prose that will suck you straight in, and a wealth of detail that is both horrifying as it is morbidly fascinating. All the while you are rooting for each woman but feeling the sense of impending doom, so that, by the end, you realise Penner has let us off the hook with an ending that is, in my humble opinion, perfect.
There’s just enough mystery, just enough of a twist without losing sight of the fact that the heart of this story is the plight of these women we’re reading about. And while history might forget about them, by the end of The Lost Apothecary, you and I will remember them for a long time to come.
Highly recommended for those that love a good mystery with a historical setting, a perfect twist, and heartfelt characters you can care about.
THE LOST APOTHECARY
Park Row Books, 2021
Paperback, 301 pages