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Oh Look, Another Dual Timeline Historical Fiction Book: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner Review

Portions of this review do contain spoilers but there will be warnings ahead of those sections if you want to skip them.

Despite how the title might make it sound, I’m a sucker for dual timeline historical fiction books. I enjoy the mystery and intrigue that revolves around the story that plays out in the past because of something another character has found in the present. They’re usually quick reads and I’ll probably continue to pick them up even with the issues that I do tend to have with them.

I find when it comes to these dual timeline books that the main character in the present day timeline is used to give some sort of conclusion to the character(s) from the past. The present day character tends to use this investigation into the past as some sort of distraction from events that are taking place in their own life. I don’t necessarily mind this but at times it can be jarring to be thrown from one perspective to another, especially because it also involves a time jump. When it comes to historical fiction I usually prefer books that take place entirely in the past without needing to time jump in order to learn the fate of the characters.

I wrote a review back in 2019 about the book A Fire Sparkling by Julianne Maclean which is written in a similar way and has more of my thoughts on books like this. Now let’s jump into the review for The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner.

First off, this cover is GORGEOUS which was a big reason as to why I picked it up. Definitely an impulse buy but the synopsis was intriguing too.

A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course. 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.

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.

Besides the murder aspect of this I would also like to add trigger warnings for miscarriage, suicide, sexual assault, vomiting, and blood.

The Lost Apothecary, while containing darker themes, was a light read so as expected I flew through it. Another reason to this was the fact that I didn’t really enjoy the present day chapters that followed Caroline so I kept reading in order to get back to the chapters that followed Eliza and Nella in the past. I’m not a fan of plot lines that center around infidelity and while I understood why the author chose this to be part of Caroline’s story I didn’t enjoy it. I felt like Caroline was an awkward character in the way she was written and I don’t think she was as dynamic as Eliza and Nella were. Though I will admit that I didn’t particularly find any of them to be truly dynamic or unique characters. Nella had such a fascinating backstory and yet she was given a hardened personality that seemed to leave her unable to share her inner thoughts with even herself. I also found myself wanting so much more from Eliza because while I loved her determination she would go back and forth between being so obviously “young” to all of a sudden behaving in a way that contradicted this.

Just a heads up there will be spoilers in this next paragraph so if you’d like to continue with my spoiler free thoughts feel free to skip it!

The more I thought about Eliza the more I wondered how the story may have been written if she was aged up slightly, even just to 15 (she is 12 when the book begins). An aspect of this book was that Eliza gets her first period after her employer’s husband is poisoned and subsequently dies. She thinks that she has been possessed by his ghost and this is why she’s bleeding. It takes a majority of the book before she ever gets an explanation and while it broke my heart to see how scared she was I also felt that this was an odd plot line considering she otherwise acted so much older than she was. It didn’t even seem like just a difference of the times, Eliza was just oddly written. It was as if she needed to be a heroic character who could still be naive and romanticize the world since Nella was such a pessimist.

Despite not loving the present day chapters, the past chapters were really intriguing and I think the fact that the author is a historian played into the enjoyment that I felt when reading those portions of the book. At the end there is a section from the author about the historical aspects of the story. She gave context to some of the choices she made and I really enjoyed this! Whenever I read a historical fiction I tend to enjoy it even more when authors include resources or context because it allows people who are passionate about history to have a starting place to look into the real world inspiration for the book.

In terms of the plot, again I was intrigued from the moment I read the synopsis. However this was a shorter book and I thought that the balance of events was off. Both storylines took forever to develop to some sort of climax and then the ending felt rushed. It was as if the author had been planning on writing a book that was longer but had to fit it into a specific page count and instead of editing the beginning portion, she just cut chunks out of the ending in order to get to the conclusion in time. And as I had mentioned at the beginning of this post the ending of Nella and Eliza’s story completely hinged on what Caroline could discover in her own quest. I don’t want to completely talk down on this because I do find enjoyment out of reading books like this but it often just feels like a way to avoid writing a book that entirely takes place in the past.

The next paragraph contains spoilers for Caroline’s storyline so if you want to continue a spoiler free review skip to the next section!

As I’d mentioned earlier when discussing Caroline as a character I thought she was awkwardly written and I didn’t really enjoy her story. It focused heavily on infidelity and wanting children as well as regrets over life choices. I feel bad for talking down about these types of stories because I know that there’s an audience for them but it’s just not for me. And the more I think about the way her storyline ended the more I realize how weird the timing was. Her husband ingests an essential oil and ends up in the ICU during which time Caroline is accused of trying to murder him because her notes about Nella were discovered. The entire situation felt poorly handled by all parties and in the end Caroline’s husband who was just in the ICU is casually just going to hop on an international flight and leave. SIR???? IS THAT ACTUALLY A GOOD IDEA??? By the end of this whole ordeal Caroline also reveals that she is going to grad school in order to begin to live for herself again. I was just really confused by the timing because as someone who is also going back to school (granted not abroad and I’m just going to be finishing my undergrad) everything seemed so definite and in the end it was. It just felt like no matter what decision Caroline made she wasn’t going to fail in order to give her some sort of happy ending.

Alrighty, now that I’m done with that mini rant I will say that I did overall enjoy The Lost Apothecary. If you’re looking for a quick dual timeline historical fiction book I would definitely recommend giving this a go. However, if you’re not a fan of historical books that do have a larger focus on the life drama of characters instead of the actual historical context and events I would probably pass this book. This is Sarah Penner’s debut novel and I have to say that despite the issues that I did have with her work I will most likely pick up any future books she writes because I’d love to see what else she might come up with.

If you’re interested in picking up The Lost Apothecary you can find it at the following links:

Barnes & Noble // Indie Bound (for local indie stores) // Bookshop // Target

And with that, I hope you all have a great day and I’ll talk to you in my next post.