‘The Lost Apothecary’ by Sarah Penner – abandoned at 20%

I wanted to slip into ‘The Lost Apothecary’ like a relaxing bath. I didn’t need anything too challenging, just an interesting puzzle, some strong characters and a picturesque setting.

Everything looked good. The cover and the plot summary were compelling enough for me to pre-order the book, even though it was a debut novel. I was encouraged when I saw that the audiobook had three narrators, one for each of the main characters.

By the time I’d listened to two hours of the book, I knew this one wasn’t for me. It got off to a rocky start. The opening of the Eighteenth-Century narrative felt a little over-burdened with foreboding in a way that felt Victorian rather than Georgian.

It was when I reached the present-day narrative that my enthusiasm for the book started to wane. Caroline is an American woman from Ohio with a college degree and ten years of marriage behind her, yet here’s what her internal monologue sounds like:

“Now I no longer needed the notebook, and I’d discarded every plan within. The back of my throat began to burn, tears approaching, as I wondered what else may soon be discarded…

…Would I lose, too, my hopes for a baby? The idea of it made my stomach ache with want of more than a decent meal…

I spotted the entrance of a pub, The Old Fleet Tavern. But before I could venture inside, a rugged-looking fellow with a clipboard and stained khakis waived me down…”

I found this distractingly hard to believe. What educated Twenty-First Century American woman talks or thinks like this? It’s not just that the English is flawed, it’s that the vocabulary makes it sound like a pastiche of a Victorian novel.

I tried to write this off to it being the early days of the novel. I listened for another hour or so. The more I listened, the less engaging I found Caroline. Her interior monologue settled down into something a little more modern but it still felt like someone improvising lines in a Live Action Role Play. I just couldn’t find it in me to be sympathetic to her whole woe-is-me pity-party.

Nella, our Eighteenth-Century apothecary, was easier to engage with. Her monologue worked although it was drawn very much in primary colours. I struggled a little with the suspension of disbelief over the idea that Nella’s mother, an apparent unmarried woman with a child, owned and ran an apothecary shop in London in the late Eighteenth-Century. The Society of Apothecaries, a politically powerful Corporation in London, regulated the trade. I doubt that they had women members. I doubt that women would have owned shops. I doubt even more that Nella would have been allowed to inherit her mother’s business. It seemed to me that I was being asked to grant working woman in London in 1791 a far higher level of freedom than I had previously imagined.

I gave up after I read the first internal dialogue from the twelve-year-old Eliza. She seems to be the daughter of a land-owning farmer. I’m surprised that she’d enter into service in London. It’s too far away and there would have been a lot of competition for places. She’s written like a kind of ‘Little Nell’ figure and she’s remarkable naive. In England in 1791, the legal age for marriage was twelve for girls and fourteen for boys, yet Eliza seems to have no idea about sex. That seems a stretch for a farmer’s daughter.

So, finding that I didn’t believe in and didn’t care about the present-day character, that the 1791 setting felt improbable, and that the youngest character felt like a transplant from a Victorian novel, I realised I was going to get more irritation than relaxation from this book and set it aside.

Your experience may be different. If you can treat this as an ‘Olden Days’ story set in a mythical kingdom and you like a romantic view of the world, this might be fun.

Take a listen to the sample below and see what you think (ignore the fact that date convention is American. It switches to English when Nella uses a date in her interior monologue).

3 thoughts on “‘The Lost Apothecary’ by Sarah Penner – abandoned at 20%

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