“The Lost Apothecary” by Sarah Penner promises murder, mystery, female empowerment and something close to magic. And though it has a compelling plot and an intriguing cast of characters, “The Lost Apothecary” is still very clearly a debut novel.
The opening chapters are difficult to work through, but still hold promise. Two characters are immediately introduced: Nella, a sickly, middle-aged woman who runs an apothecary shop for poisons in 18th-century London, and Caroline, a young and deeply unfulfilled modern-day woman in a failing marriage. A third protagonist, the intelligent and curious 12-year-old housemaid Eliza, arrives shortly after her visit to the apothecary.
Though readers will come to understand and appreciate these characters as the story progresses, they seem flat and melodramatic at first. The writing is simplistic and over-explanatory — little is left for the reader to discover on their own. The characters regularly sound like they are narrating their own memoirs, thinking for several pages at a time about their entire life stories and everything that led up to this particular moment.
These internal dialogues are filled with quotes like, “I needed to discover what I truly wanted. … But to do that, I needed to unbury a few truths of my own,” and “Beneath the ink strokes of my register hid betrayal, anguish … and dark secrets.” Though the plot is promising enough to keep interest piqued, these sentences detract from the story rather than adding to it. Just as readers begin to immerse themselves in the world that Penner is building, they find themselves pulled back to reality by cliché phrases and unnecessary monologues.
However, once the exposition is over, both the pace and entertainment of the story increase significantly. Despite their lackluster introduction, Penner does a solid job of complicating the women and their internal and external battles. Though each character has unique circumstances, their struggles revolve around the same central premise: trying to understand the role one plays in the happiness and pain of others. Whether that manifests through selling poisons in the hopes that the comfort Nella brings to other women will soothe her own pain, acknowledging how much of oneself is lost for the sake of another person, or trying to get rid of a literal ghost haunting them for their crimes, each character’s situation is wildly different. Thankfully, the motivations behind their actions are so inherently human that every character remains empathetic and real.
The story is split between two time periods. There are occasional scenes that feel a bit forced, as if Penner is trying too hard to make the two storylines parallel one another, but on the whole, it’s exciting to watch Caroline piece together the mystery of Nella’s apothecary. It rarely gets frustrating watching her struggle, as it does in many mysteries, nor does it seem unrealistically easy for her to figure it out.
Caroline’s personal life — her marriage, her job, her feelings of obligation and fear — fuels her devotion to unraveling the mystery of the apothecary in an organic way, rather than forcing her to jump between two plots. The worlds of 1791 and today do not feel separate, but rather perform as one intertwined narrative of women’s grief, discovery and growth.
Though the writing falters in a few places later in the book, its overall quality improves significantly. The conclusions of both timelines are satisfying, and when looking back on the entire novel, its strengths definitely outweigh its weaknesses. The plot and characters are so strong that the comparatively minor crimes in writing can be forgiven without too much complaint. It is not a perfect novel, but it succeeds where it needs to, and does so well enough to leave readers content and contemplative by the end.
Daily Arts Contributor Brenna Goss can be reached at email@example.com.