Seldom do I start reading a novel that I think I probably won’t like. There are zillions of novels floating around in the literary world. Time is limited. So “pick-and-choose carefully” is my mode of operation—and I often rely on the opinions of friends who have read a possibility to decide whether I should even gaze at the first page.
Such was the case with The Lost Apothecary, a first-time work of historical fiction by Sarah Penner, a Kansas native and University of Kansas graduate who stepped away from the corporate world after 13 years to write and live in Florida with her husband and their miniature dachshund named Zoe. Yes, I always look up the background of a new author just to see what she or he might be all about.
I had misgivings when I first learned a few basic things about the novel, which was published in March 2021. A woman two centuries ago dishing out poison to wives so they can kill their husbands? And, in our time, a woman flees in a marital snit to London? On top of that, no sex, no car chases, nor fistfights or terrorists planning to blow up the world? The book seemed like any number in a horde of mind-numbing romance novels that I can buy on Amazon for $1.99—you know, the ones with covers featuring a warrior-hero hunk with long-hair, bare chest, longingly admired by a wanton-eyed babe.
I have a friend who was lukewarm about The Lost Apothecary and another who thought it was great. The best literary critic I know, my wife Patty, gave it a thumb’s up. To check things out a bit more, I read reviews (yup, I do that, too) and found, among many accolades, one review that used such descriptors as “crackling suspense, unforgettable characters, and searing insights.” I also read an interview that Sarah Penner did for the Los Angeles Public Library. I’ve found that interviews with an author usually help to flesh out what a novel or nonfiction book is about, as well as the accuracy of settings and background action. Interviews often offer an insight into the amount of research behind an author’s work. In Sarah’s case, she spent time in the British Library, which is a setting in the novel; reviewed old manuscripts and druggist diaries; and studied poisoning cases in the 17th and 18th centuries.
You might think that—if I had foregone all of this footwork—I could’ve instead been 50 pages into The Lost Apothecary. But it was time well-spent, and spending time reading the 320-page novel is something I highly recommend to everyone.
It’s a lovely complex work with multiple levels of themes and three interesting, tenacious main characters. Each character is tragically flawed in her own way, Each is seeking something. The basic heart of the story is the truth sought by all of us, female and male. We are all seekers of something—a better life, peace of mind, the just-right career, whatever. A lucky few find what they seek, but most, well, we fail in the quest.
The novel opens in modern times with Caroline escaping to London after she learns the life-shattering news that her husband of 10 years had an affair. The trip to London was supposed to have been for Caroline and her husband to celebrate their 10-year anniversary, but Caroline was so furious she journeyed alone.
Caroline is in London only a few hours when—to purposely do something new in her life—she goes mudlarking in the River Thames. I have to admit, I was like the American Caroline, I had never heard of the term “mudlarking.” A Google search found that it is a practice that dates back as far as the late 18th century when people searched the muddy riverbanks to see what they could find to sell or use themselves—sort of like our modern-day equivalent of dumpster-diving.
As any good author would do, Sarah Penner got the realistic feel of a literary scene by immersing her feet in the mud of River Thames. During the course of three mudlarking sessions, she found pottery, clay pipes, metal pins and animal bones. (For more info, click on the link to the library interview referenced above.)
During her mudlarking excursion, the character Caroline finds an ancient, small glass vial with an engraved marking of what looks to be a bear. The vial, as it turns out, is a historical artifact that likely came from an apothecary shop in the far past. How did she find it among the muck and mud? She followed advice given by an older wise gentleman, known as Bachelor Alf, who leads mudlarking excursions. His philosophy is to look for anomalies, things out of place—here I could easily tack on the phrase “in your life”—when you’re searching through the mud for treasure.
He says, “…let your subconscious find the anomaly. Our brains are meant to identify breaks in a pattern. We evolved that way, many millions of years ago. You are not searching for a thing so much as you are searching for an inconsistency of things, or an absence.”
In other words, as he later advises, “You must trust your instinct more than your eyes.”
Sage advice, certainly. But realistic? How many of us in the frenetic, sensory-overloaded daily grind of our modern world actually have the time for personal introspection to ponder beyond what’s for dinner, catching a taxi or snoozing in front of the tube?
Caroline hadn’t, most certainly, but now, in a foreign city brimming with sensory excitement, just shattered by marital betrayal, she does. She admits to herself, “Well, there were a number of things absent for me at the moment, not the least of which was any security or surety about what the rest of my life might entail.”
Standing in the muddy detritus of the river (hmm, anybody care to make an analogy here?), with the ancient vial in hand, Caroline is like those fortunate folks who can feel a connection with times gone by when viewing a Monet waterlily or reading a historical novel. Caroline is a historian at heart, but her memory and feelings of this are so deeply buried that she has, for all practical purposes, forgotten them.
The vial, she realizes, gives her a connection to the past: “Centuries might separate me from whomever last held the vial, but we shared in the exact sensation of its cool glass between our fingers. It felt as though the universe, in her strange and nonsensical way, meant to reach out to me, to remind me of the enthusiasm I once had for the trifling bits of bygone eras, if only I could look beneath the dirt that had accumulated over time.”
Just as any of us might gaze upon a trivial object that suddenly makes us think of something else, the vial clicks with Caroline. It’s the symbol of a new path ahead. “This glass object—delicate and yet still intact, somewhat like myself—was proof that I could be brave, adventurous, and do hard things on my own. I dropped the vial into my pocket.”
This is one of those literary turning points like you find in Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Dickens, and (oh, lord, please forgive me for slipping this in with those greats) the movie World War Z. For Caroline, it’s the beginning of her search for anomalies in her life—the inconsistency of things, the breaking of pattern, the absence of something in her life, as Bachelor Alf had pointed out. She begins an analysis of the path she took up a decade earlier to gain marriage and hopefully motherhood. Soon it becomes a quest to understand what she is missing in her life, and along the way she unravels the mystery of the vial, or so it seems.
Her quest takes the reader into the London of 1791. Please note, it takes the “reader” and not Caroline. As much as I love the Outlander novel series and other time-traveling sagas, this is not a time-traveling work. Caroline stays put in her modern times; the other two main characters, in theirs of 1791. The presence of the vial is the connecting thread from one time period to the other.
The novel’s other two main characters have a story that is equally intriguing as Caroline’s.
Nella is an apothecary—the lost apothecary—who, in the year 1791 in London, specializes in providing poison to ladies who want to be gone of their philandering husbands. Nella seems almost witch-like in appearance, as if she could star in the Broadway play Wicked. But she’s not a witch. She’s a scorned woman whose soul and body are being eaten from the inside out by the wickedness of what she does. She is, indeed, a “lost” apothecary. Caroline discovers that such a woman did exist but her name, like so many other women in history, is lost forever to those of us in the modern world.
Meanwhile, Eliza is a 12-year-old girl still innocent in many ways of the world. Nonetheless, she has gumption, bravado and faithfulness to match any literary hero. On any given day, I would gladly put Eliza up against Hera, the Greek goddess who protected women. Eliza bonds with Nella when the girl arrives at the apothecary shop to pick up a poison for her mistress, who wants to rid herself of her husband. The vial, coincidently, is similar—with the bear marking, designating the apothecary shop—to the one Caroline finds while mudlarking two centuries later.
It’s important to note, by the way, that the shop is hidden so only women who need its deadly services can find it. No, this isn’t magic. It’s a shop concealed behind a wall in what looks to be an abandoned store. In short, word-of-mouth was the means of advertising the shop among the ladies of London. The shop and a well-tattered ledger that Nella maintains become critical props in the telling of Nella and Eliza’s story.
Their story revolves around unfortunate miscommunication and unwitting errors that put their lives at serious risk. Eliza’s bravery saves the proverbial day for both of them. Or does it? Caroline’s quest to learn more about the vial seems to indicate so, at least for Eliza. But, in truth, the reader does not know for certain.
Many more positive words can be said about The Lost Apothecary, but more insights are what the reader should find out for herself or himself. Take your time reading this novel. There is a lot packed into it. And also take time to ponder, to think, about inconsistency of things in your life.
Finally, I would like to make observations about two issues that struck me as important.
Nella and Caroline’s story could easily stand alone without Caroline’s story. However, without the story of Nella and Caroline as a backdrop, Caroline’s story may have sounded more like a modern romance novel: woman scorned, woman finds herself. Not that I have anything against the modern romance genre—I love romance stories; Nora Roberts is one of my favored authors—but I’m very pleased that Sarah Penner wove the two stories together. It’s a winner.
My final comment involves an underlying point made by the author, an unfortunate truth. The role of women in history was undoubtedly of extreme importance; yet we know so little about their presence and impacts. History—what we learn from historical documents—is overwhelmingly dominated by males as the heroes and villains. This historical observation about women is especially true when it comes to the recording of the way women of yesteryear interacted with and influenced each other.
Only now, in recent years, are authors and such mass media as television finally focusing on women in history. This is an excellent societal and historical advance, but, in the end, it does not yet take away from what Caroline emphasized near the end of the novel: “History doesn’t record the intricacies of women’s relationships with one another; they’re not to be uncovered.” The Lost Apothecary is a novel and therefore fiction, but it does gives us valuable and revealing insights into the lives, times and relationships of women today and in the late 1700s.