Thank you to Harper Audio for granting me complimentary audio ARC access via NetGalley! My thoughts are my own and my review is honest.
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The Lost Apothecary
by Sarah Penner
Publishing 2 March 2021
by Park Row (HarperCollins) & Harper Audio
Genre: Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction
Page Count: 320
Audio Length: 10 Hours 18 Minutes
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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.
My Rating: 5 Stars
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The Lost Apothecary tells the stories of three women at pivotal points in their lives, split between the past and the present. In the present, we follow Caroline, an aspiring historian who just discovered her husband’s infidelity and decided to take their anniversary trip to London by herself. While there she finds a small bottle in the river that leads her to investigate a centuries-old mystery about an apothecary killer.
In the past, we flip flop between Nella, the aforementioned apothecary, and Eliza, a young client who would rather be an apprentice. Nella, the apothecary, is a woman scorned by a former lover who used her medicines against her. She’s never forgotten her lost daughter, born stillborn far too early, and laments that her fertility never returned. Baren, shamed, and alone, she added potions of revenge to the list of treatments she could render to serve the underserved women of London, and this is how she found herself tangled up in the murder that would be her undoing. Eliza is the handmaiden to a well-to-do lady who sends her to Nella’s shop to obtain poison for her husband. When the deed is done and Eliza’s lady has retreated to a distant family estate under the guise of mourning, Eliza is convinced that her victim’s ghost haunts her and wishes to take on new employment anywhere but that house, which is why she returns to the apothecary.
Lorna Bennett, Lauren Anthony, and Lauren Irwin, the official audiobook narrators, did a fantastic job of bringing this book and its three leading ladies to life. I’m going to go ahead and admit that I didn’t notice it was indeed three separate narrators as I was listening, I could easily be convinced it was one narrator with a talent for distinct character voices, but that just demonstrates how well matched these narrators are and how beautifully edited the final audiobook is.
I love the ongoing mystery that Caroline is trying to solve about Nella’s life, without knowing her name, prompted only by the tiny bottle she found. We do reach a point where the portions told from Nella and Eliza’s points of view in the past have solved all (or most) of the mystery for the reader while Caroline in the present hasn’t figured it all out yet, but this is presented in a way (and with enough other things going on) that it doesn’t become a point of frustration for the reader.
I did find myself wanting more from the past timeline than we go, but not so much that I didn’t enjoy Caroline’s parts when they came up. This book has been left open for a potential sequel, and though I have no idea Caroline’s research efforts would reveal more about Nella and Eliza than what we get, there’s so much more I want to know about those two! I’m fascinated by Nella’s medicinal apothecary concoctions, but we’re teased that Eliza has found a wealth of information about witchcraft, and I want to know more about that.
I would recommend this book to all lovers of historical or literary fiction, especially those who also enjoy mystery and urban/low fantasy as there are elements of those here, but it would also be a good choice for general readers of women’s literature. I’m glad the cover art on this one was so beautiful and eye-catching because I typically don’t request ARCs labelled women’s fiction, but I’m so glad I found this one!
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