The Lost Apothecary catapulted to the top of bestseller lists nearly as soon as it was released, and why is no surprise. In a wonderfully written debut novel, author Sarah Penner weaves an enchanting tale of personal loss and perseverance through three superbly-written characters, each of whom grapples with inner demons.
Switching between the past and present, The Lost Apothecary culminates in an enduring intersection of secrets and discovery. We meet Caroline in present-day London, licking her wounds after a devastating betrayal. After serendipitously stumbling upon a mudlarking tour, she stumbles upon a mysterious glass vial. Looking into its history, she uncovers centuries-old secrets held by a forgotten woman of London’s past. Along the way, she faces her own pain, hopes, and aspirations and rediscovers her own mislaid tenacity.
In the past, there’s Nella— a complex and sublimely imperfect character whose scars and cynicism run deep— but whose dedication runs deeper. Her backstory was utterly heartbreaking, and her actions as ah, ahem, apothecary of death? Well, chalk it up to being in pure survival mode for two decades, call it what you will, but one thing you can say for sure about her character is that she is steadfast and is consistently faithful to her principles.
Finally, there’s Eliza – my favorite of the character portraits so deftly painted by Penner in this novel. She’s at once innocently optimistic and oh-so-naive. Her character is so incredibly earnest, and it tugs at the heartstrings. Despite the unfathomable things she’s already experienced, she is strong and shines like a beacon of hope for Nella.
It’s worth noting that Nella and Eliza’s stories could have likely held up without the addition of Caroline’s present-day investigation. After musing on it a bit, I’d have preferred a little more focus on Nella and Eliza’s POVs and a little less Caroline.
The added modern perspective felt like a story completely separate from the Back Alley apothecary of 1791— more an ancillary plot device than an essential part of the overarching story. While the parallels were there, the meaningful connection between past and present was not. At the end of this story, I found myself already missing 18th-century Nella and Eliza, while not saying the same for 21st-century Caroline, whose story I feel could have been pulled out into its own standalone novel to the character’s benefit.
Overall, I found the plot to be incredibly engaging and well-paced. The hardcover version sits at just about 300 pages (plus bonus content at the end). Penner’s writing had me thoroughly engrossed by the story, and I could not put this book down, finishing it from cover to cover well within a day.
The twisty, magickal conclusion warmed my heart, leaving me feeling hopeful for the characters, and satisfied with the ending. The novel explores the toll that hate, like magic, can have on a person, encouraging the reader to acknowledge that sometimes the only way to move forward is to let go of the past that’s weighing you down. I recommend The Lost Apothecary to anyone who likes historical fiction featuring strong female heroines, especially if you enjoy stories with elements of mystery and magick.
Content warning: pregnancy loss, murder, not-so-veiled allusions to sexual assault