Overall Rating: 3/5
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery
Read if you loved: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Content warnings: Miscarriage, murder, infidelity, suicide ideation, predatory behavior
To many women in 1791 London, Nella offers what the time’s society never could: revenge on the men who have wronged them. In the back of her apothecary, she maintains and dispenses poisons to women who come to her in despair, and no one apart from them suspects a thing. That is, until twelve-year old Eliza shows up, and sets into motion a series of events that threatens to expose everything Nella has kept hidden in the darkness. Meanwhile, in present day London, Caroline is on a solo-honeymoon after discovering her husband’s infidelity. When she comes across a strange vial while mudlarking in the Thames, she is swept into a mystery that most never knew existed. A tale of female autonomy and the intangibility of history, The Lost Apothecary is tantalizing in its premise, but the final outcome falls flat relative to expectations.
Here’s the thing. I heard a very similar real-life story covered on My Favorite Murder (hi murderinos!) and as a result, went into this book extremely excited. It offered so much promise but just…ugh. Let’s start with the things I did enjoy. While I *obviously* do not condone murder, any stories surrounding the quiet ways in which women subverted men in power during times of oppression are incredibly enticing, and this does address those themes. Nella was easily my favorite character. She is morally ambiguous and layered, and I wanted so much more time in her head (more on that later). The connecting thread between the past and present held a lot of nuanced discussions around history, specifically as it pertains to the people we forget and the stories that are not told. This created a number of poignant moments that were thought-provoking, which nicely balanced out the more fast-paced mystery-driven scenes.
But overall, the book was just…okay? The characters weren’t developed as well as I would have liked, the plot was tame considering the depth of the premise, and there were so many extraneous storylines that I couldn’t bring myself to care about. Multiple perspectives are great but there was little to distinguish between the characters’ voices, and that’s a problem when one of the narrators is twelve-years old and sounds like she could be one of the adults. Caroline’s story arc was an unnecessary trope in and of itself and quite frankly, this book could have done without the entire present day narrative. I would have much preferred the page-time to go towards fleshing out Eliza and Nella’s relationship more, as that was an aspect I so badly wanted to explore but never fully connected with. We hardly hear about the other women Nella has helped. In fact, the only adult female customer we meet is cast in a poor light and it felt like a disservice to the story. It was even more upsetting because there are snippets of very interesting information tacked on at the end of the book that I would have loved to see incorporated throughout. This book had so much potential!! And it felt squandered.
There are certainly other books pertaining to similar themes that I would recommend first (see my “Read if you loved” note up top) as I do not think The Lost Apothecary succeeds in standing out in the way it could. I know many people love this story, so perhaps my lackluster reaction is due to my ridiculously high expectations. And listen, I still gave it 3-stars because it’s not *bad* by any means. It’s just not great, and with a story like this, I was really hoping for great.