Poison, Betrayal, and Survival: Penner’s World of ‘The Lost Apothecary’

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R E V I E W – B O O K

Tasnia Shahrin

Releasing a debut novel is a major step for any writer, especially if it’s during a worldwide pandemic when many will turn to books for escape. However, you know you are a lucky author if you see people getting hyped up for your first novel, even before it is out. And this exactly is the readers’ community’s scenario with Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary. This book has been named among the most anticipated books of 2021 by Newsweek, Good Housekeeping, Hello! magazine, Oprah.com, Bustle, and many, many more.

Through this book, Penner gives us a historical-fiction with dual-perspective following three intriguing characters. One of them is Nella, an apothecary who looks out for other women by providing them with poison to kill misbehaving men. The second character is a curious girl named Eliza, whose desire to know about the apothecary takes over her mind, and the third character is a woman whose marriage is falling apart and hence takes the help of an apothecary to investigate the unknown. The storylines for the two perspectives are distant from each other by more than two centuries, yet it is the desire of the women to take full control of their lives that connects them together.

The book begins with the perspective of Nella who acquired the knowledge of preparing medicines using herbs and powders from her mother (who was also a healer). After the demise of her mother, she took full control of their business and took it to another direction. In her account book, she records secrets: “Secrets about the vigorous young man who suffered an ailing heart on the eve of his wedding, or how it came to pass that a healthy new father fell victim to a sudden fever. These were not weak hearts and fevers at all, but thorn-apple juice and nightshade slipped into wines and pies by cunning women whose names now stained my register.”

The reason behind Nella selling poison, that too only for using on men, is one of the book’s pivotal secrets. Now middle aged and in failing health, Nella will confess it finally to the person who voices the historical narrative, Eliza Fanning. Despite being really young, Eliza has a passionate desire to know about Nella’s business and wants to become her apprentice. This later on brings more twists to the book as when they cause error with a customer’s order, they fall in great trouble.

The third character, Caroline Parcewell, arrives in London for her 10th anniversary trip with her husband James. However, moments before coming to London she finds out that James is cheating on her with another woman, so she leaves for London all by herself. Shattered and heartbroken, Caroline takes up an activity of mud-larking to distract her mind and it while doing this she finds a tiny blue vial marked with the outline of a bear.

The mud-larking part of the story is quite crucial to its formation as the author stated in an interview with “Chicago Review of Books” that “I was mudlarking, which means playfully hunting the riverbed for old or valuable artifacts…over the course of several days, I went down to the river three separate times, finding an assortment of pottery, clay pipes, metal pins, and even animal bones. It is here that I first spotted a fragment of a mid-seventeenth century delftware apothecary jar, and the inspiration for The Lost Apothecary was born.”

And in these ways, Nella, Eliza, and Caroline — all become connected through their experience with apothecary and the wish to understand life better. All three are driven by a thirst for knowledge and by a desire for independence.

What strikes me the most about this novel is the writer’s balance between the two genres—historical fiction and contemporary fiction—through the use of dual perspectives. Penner also manages the plot really well, by handing out the twists and major revelations at the perfect moment, when your curiosity is at its peak. There is no rush or force and there are enough elements to keep you guessing throughout the end.

The character arcs also very remarkable as they are blended with several historical details. As I am someone who really does not read about the 18th century era often, it was fun for me to experience this world Penner has created that shows an interesting portrait of life back then. I also was very engaged with the present day storyline of Caroline who is dealing with the fallout of her marriage. Her research into the apothecary helps to spark a reader’s love for history.

I also believe the concept of Mudlarking is very unique as it is what sets the wheels in motion when featured heavily in the beginning of the novel. As previously mentioned, Penner said she was inspired to write the novel when she first learned about mud-larking. She thought featuring an apothecary would be interesting as “there is something beguiling, even enchanting, about what might lie within those bottles: potions that bewitch us, cure us, kill us.”

To conclude, if you’re looking for a historical fiction novel that differs from the standard war stories, The Lost Apothecary is a great choice. It will immediately sweep you away to London and may encourage you to look into mud-larking as well. You’ll never know what’s out there!


Referred interview:

Macallister, Greer. The Indelible Mark of Women in The Lost Apothecary. Chicago Review of Books. 2 March, 2021.


Tasnia is a proud Slytherin who loves binging on poetry and graphic novels in her free time.


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