Book review and synopsis for The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, a novel about female relationships and an investigation into a "killer apothecary" living in late 18th-century London..
In The Lost Apothecary, Nella is the proprietor of a secret apothecary shop in London where she has been vending poisons, known only by word-of-mouth by the women of the city. One day, Eliza, a young girl with a curiosity about her trade, enters the store.
In present day, Caroline has just discovered her husband's infidelity and comes upon a clue about the past existence of the apothecary shop while on holiday in London. Soon, she finds herself absorbed in a historical investigation.
In this vivid novel, the past and the present collide, resulting in a story about female relationships, full of bitter betrayals and intrigue.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot SummaryChapter-by-Chapter SummarySee the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of The Lost ApothecaryQuick Plot Summary
The one paragraph version of this: In 1971 in London, Nella runs a secret apothecary shop, illegally dispensing poisons for women to kill men who have wronged them. When the authorities track her down, a young girl who had been helping her, Eliza, sacrifices herself to save Nella. But a (possibly magic) tincture Eliza made ends up saving them both, and Nella realizes that dispensing these poisons is not the way to cure the pain of betrayal. In present day, Caroline is a woman who has been betrayed by her husband. She finds a clue (a vial) about the apothecary shop, tracks down its history, discovers Eliza's involvement, and ultimately decides to toss the vial back into the water to keep Eliza's secret.
In The Lost Apothecary, Nella runs a secret apothecary shop hidden behind a fake back wall in London where she sells poisons to women, spread by word of mouth, to be used against the men in their lives who have wronged them. She keeps a logbook of each transaction. Nella began dispensing poisons when she was betrayed by a lover, Frederick. He had not only turned out to be married, but when Nella had told him she was pregnant, he'd secretly given Nella an herb to cause a miscarriage.
In present day, Caroline is a woman who has just discovered that her husband of ten years, James, was cheating on her. She's in London for the vacation they were supposed to have gone on together. She goes on a mudlarking (looking for old objects in the mud) tour of the Thames and discovers a light blue vial etched with a bear (the insignia of Nella's apothecary shop). Curious about the vial, she begins to investigate its origins. She's assisted by Gaynor, a woman who works at the British Museum.
Back in 1791, a 12-year-old servant girl, Eliza Fanning visits Nella's shop. Eliza was asked by her mistress, Mrs. Amwell, to fetch a poison to kill her husband, Mr. Amwell (it's implied he is a child molester who has set his sights on Eliza). The poison works as intended, and Mr. Amwell is killed. Eliza soon returns to Nella's stop, expressing an interest in Nella's trade. Eliza is also keen to take a break from the Amwell house because she is worried that Mr. Amwell's angry spirit is haunting her because she has started bleeding (but it's actually just that she has begun menstruating).
In present day, Caroline tracks down a reference to a killer apothecary, which leads to a possible location for the shop. She breaks into an abandoned small back alley area and eventually finds what was once Nella's apothecary shop. She takes photos of what she sees, including Nella's old logbook, and she later transcribes these into notes, including Nella's descriptions of her poisons.
Back in 1791, a woman named Lady Clarence enters Nella's shop, wanting to poison her husband's mistress. When Nella refuses to knowingly poison another woman, Lady Clarence threatens to report Nella to the authorities. Nella reluctantly fulfills the order with Eliza's assistance. Meanwhile, Eliza visits a magic shop to try to deal with Mr. Amwell's angry spirit, and she ends up mixing up a magic tincture to reverse "bad fortune".
In present day, Caroline's husband James shows up in London, but ends up accidently ingesting eucalyptus oil (which is meant to be topically applied). The police question Caroline when the medics see her notes on poisons on her desk. However, Gaynor and James help Caroline to clear her name. Caroline figures out that James ingested it on purpose to try to win her back, tells him they need to separate, and he leaves.
In 1791, Lady Clarence reports that things have gone wrong, Lord Clarence is dead and that the authorities may be searching for Nella's shop. Just as Eliza finishes her tincture, Eliza and Nella are forced to flee. As the constables descend on the shop, Nella struggles to run because the poisons she has been brewing are destroying her from the inside. Nella heads toward the bridge to jump off, but Eliza drinks her tincture and then jumps instead, sacrificing herself. The constables assume the unknown killer apothecary is dead and drops their search. Nella also realizes that dispensing poisons is not going to help heal the pain of Frederick's betrayal.
In present day, Caroline goes back to her research and finds out that Eliza survived because the tincture had a warming effect that protected Eliza from the cold waters of the Thames. Eliza married the shopkeeper at the magic shop, Tom Pepper, and had two kids. Nella and Eliza stayed friends.
Caroline decides to apply to graduate school in Cambridge. Even though the revealing the truth of what happened with these apothecary murders so many years ago would be a great academic find, the book ends with Caroline tossing the vial she found back into the water so she can protect Eliza's secret about what really happened.
For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.
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Great review! I was excited for this one, but pretty much every review I’ve seen has been “meh” about it. I’m still going to read it, but it’s not as high on the priority list.
You are an accomplished reviewer that says it all. To the point but fair to the author. Whenever I read your reviews I learn something. Thank you for sharing.
I did listen on audio and enjoyed it. At first I didn’t like Nella’s narration but then grew to really like it. There were times I was enjoying the story so much I just wanted to get it and read it. But I couldn’t get it at the library so kept going with the the audio. I was actually quite surprised how it seemed to come to an ending so quickly. My book club is going to be discussing it in a couple weeks so we can figure out what happened! I get it, Eliza had a concoction that saved her life but beyond that I need to see what others thought.