There are so many novels that have been published in the last ten years that have plots set in different centuries, linked by some historical artifact or location or family, that I would’ve thought there would be a name for this structure by now. If anyone knows, please clue me in. In The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner, the centuries are the eighteenth and the twenty-first. The link is a small glass bottle with a bear etched into it. The little bottle is discovered by Caroline, on an impromptu mudlarking expedition on what is supposed to be a second honeymoon. Little does she know that the bottle once belonged to a woman who used her knowledge to make troublesome husbands disappear permanently.
In Caroline’s chapters, we see a woman who has set much of her life and personality aside to make room for her husband’s very modest ambitions. The last straw for her is discovering that this husband has had a cliché-riddled affair with a co-worker. She decides to go on their trip to London alone, taking time to think about their relationship. After throwing out a couples-centric agenda and going mudlarking, Caroline goes to the British Library to learn where it might have come from. In chapters set at the end of the eighteenth century, narrated by the ailing apothecary Nella and the sprightly twelve-year-old Eliza, we get an intriguing look into a clandestine apothecary’s shop where only women can come to ask for a special remedy to give to a man in their life who needs (the client things) to be gotten rid of. Just as in Caroline’s chapters, we learn how Nella and Eliza came to be in Nella’s cramped, dusty room, surrounded by an awful lot of toxic substances. Both plot lines reflect on guilt, betrayal, and sacrifice—and how far someone is willing to go to “fix” a problem.
The biggest challenge, I think, in writing a split-time novel (best I can do for a name at the moment) is making sure that both halves are equally engaging. I’ve read books in the past where I was much more interested in one half and ended up skimming the other. Equally engaging doesn’t mean that the halves have to be the same; too much similarity can be a narrative trap. After a somewhat heavy-handed beginning, I settled nicely into both halves of The Lost Apothecary. Nella and Eliza’s half gave me a wonderful ethical dilemma to ponder as well as some nicely thrilling moments. Caroline’s half gave me a meditative rediscovery of the self and some nicely thrilling (to me) moments of research. This might sound mismatched, but the combo absolutely worked for me.
I think book clubs will like this one. Once the plots get rolling, it’s hard to put The Lost Apothecary down and there is plenty of food for thought here. I also think that Caroline’s plotline will leave some women cheering the protagonist’s decisions.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.