The Lost Apothecary : A Novel
On Sale Date: March 2, 2021
February 3, 1791
She would come at daybreak—the woman whose letter I held in my hands, the woman whose name I did not yet know.
I knew neither her age nor where she lived. I did not know her rank in society nor the dark things of which she dreamed when night fell. She could be a victim or a transgressor. A new wife or a vengeful widow. A nursemaid or a courtesan.
But despite all that I did not know, I understood this: the woman knew exactly who she wanted dead.
I lifted the blush-colored paper, illuminated by the dying f lame of a single rush wick candle. I ran my fingers over the ink of her words, imagining what despair brought the woman to seek out someone like me. Not just an apothecary, but a murderer. A master of disguise.
Her request was simple and straightforward. For my mistress’s husband, with his breakfast. Daybreak, 4 Feb. At once, I drew to mind a middle-aged housemaid, called to do the bidding of her mistress. And with an instinct perfected over the last two decades, I knew immediately the remedy most suited to this request: a chicken egg laced with nux vomica.
The preparation would take mere minutes; the poison was within reach. But for a reason yet unknown to me, something about the letter left me unsettled. It was not the subtle, woodsy odor of the parchment or the way the lower left corner curled forward slightly, as though once damp with tears. Instead, the disquiet brewed inside of me. An intuitive understanding that something must be avoided.
But what unwritten warning could reside on a single sheet of parchment, shrouded beneath pen strokes? None at all, I assured myself; this letter was no omen. My troubling thoughts were merely the result of my fatigue—the hour was late—and the persistent discomfort in my joints.
I drew my attention to my calfskin register on the table in front of me. My precious register was a record of life and death; an inventory of the many women who sought potions from here, the darkest of apothecary shops.
In the front pages of my register, the ink was soft, written with a lighter hand, void of grief and resistance. These faded, worn entries belonged to my mother. This apothecary shop for women’s maladies, situated at 3 Back Alley, was hers long before it was mine.
On occasion I read her entries—23 Mar 1767, Mrs. R. Ranford, Yarrow Milfoil 15 dr. 3x—and the words evoked memories of her: the way her hair fell against the back of her neck as she ground the yarrow stem with the pestle, or the taut, papery skin of her hand as she plucked seeds from the flower’s head. But my mother had not disguised her shop behind a false wall, and she had not slipped her remedies into vessels of dark red wine. She’d had no need to hide. The tinctures she dispensed were meant only for good: soothing the raw, tender parts of a new mother, or bringing menses upon a barren wife. Thus, she filled her register pages with the most benign of herbal remedies. They would raise no suspicion.
On my register pages, I wrote things such as nettle and hyssop and amaranth, yes, but also remedies more sinister: nightshade and hellebore and arsenic. Beneath the ink strokes of my register hid betrayal, anguish…and dark secrets.
Secrets about the vigorous young man who suffered an ailing heart on the eve of his wedding, or how it came to pass that a healthy new father fell victim to a sudden fever. My register laid it all bare: these were not weak hearts and fevers at all, but thorn apple juice and nightshade slipped into wines and pies by cunning women whose names now stained my register.
Oh, but if only the register told my own secret, the truth about how this all began. For I had documented every victim in these pages, all but one: Frederick. The sharp, black lines of his name defaced only my sullen heart, my scarred womb.
I gently closed the register, for I had no use of it tonight, and returned my attention to the letter. What worried me so? The edge of the parchment continued to catch my eye, as though something crawled beneath it. And the longer I remained at my table, the more my belly ached and my fingers trembled. In the distance, beyond the walls of the shop, the bells on a carriage sounded frighteningly similar to the chains on a constable’s belt. But I assured myself that the bailiffs would not come tonight, just as they had not come for the last two decades. My shop, like my poisons, was too cleverly disguised. No man would find this place; it was buried deep behind a cupboard wall at the base of a twisted alleyway in the darkest depths of London.
I drew my eyes to the soot-stained wall that I had not the heart, nor the strength, to scrub clean. An empty bottle on a shelf caught my reflection. My eyes, once bright green like my mother’s, now held little life within them. My cheeks, too, once flushed with vitality, were sallow and sunken. I had the appearance of a ghost, much older than my forty-one years of age.
Tenderly, I began to rub the round bone in my left wrist, swollen with heat like a stone left in the fire and forgotten. The discomfort in my joints had crawled through my body for years; it had grown so severe, I lived not a waking hour without pain. Every poison I dispensed brought a new wave of it upon me; some evenings, my fingers were so distended and stiff, I felt sure the skin would split open and expose what lay underneath.
Killing and secret-keeping had done this to me. It had begun to rot me from the inside out, and something inside meant to tear me open.
At once, the air grew stagnant, and smoke began to curl into the low stone ceiling of my hidden room. The candle was nearly spent, and soon the laudanum drops would wrap me in their heavy warmth. Night had long ago fallen, and she would arrive in just a few hours: the woman whose name I would add to my register and whose mystery I would begin to unravel, no matter the unease it brewed inside of me.
Excerpted from The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Penner. Published by Park Row Books.
I do love a good dual-timeline story! And The Lost Apothecary is quite good. It’s told from the point of view of three main characters: Nella, the titular apothecary, dispensing medicines to heal or to kill; Eliza, who comes to Nella for a permanent remedy to a problem and becomes her assistant, of a sort; and Caroline, a modern-day woman who finds her marriage on shaky ground and who is struggling to find herself.
I really enjoyed this book! The premise drew me in, and the marvelous storytelling kept me hooked. The story isn’t about women getting back at men, so much, although I can see where someone might think that. It’s more about the choices women make and the consequences of those choices, and women finding their path even within the societal expectations of their time.
In Nella’s timeline, 1791, women had very few rights. They couldn’t divorce their husbands for abuse or unfaithfulness. Nella was trying to help women the only way she knew how. When she broke her own rule, that her poisons must never be used against women, that set into motion a devastating chain of events. Eliza wanted to help Nella. In trying to help, she made a choice that brought undesirable attention to Nella’s secret shop.
Claire made the choice, when she got married, to give up on her dreams. She didn’t enroll at Cambridge like she wanted to. Instead, she took the job that provided steady income and supported her husband’s goals. She lost sight of her hopes and dreams in the process. When she found the small vial half-buried in mud, she made a choice to see what she could find out about it. That choice changed the course of her life.
This is a story well told. The ending left me with a little bit of a sense of mystery. What was of this world and what might not be? Not a cliffhanger, just enough of a question to let the reader envision what the future might be like. Delightfully gothic, mysterious, and with characters you will embrace, The Lost Apothecary gets five stars from me. I loved it.
Thanks to NetGalley and Park Row Books for an advance copy.
About the Author:
Sarah Penner is the debut author of The Lost Apothecary, to be translated in eleven languages worldwide. She works full-time in finance and is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida, with their miniature dachshund, Zoe. To learn more, visit slpenner.com.
Author website: https://www.sarahpenner.com/