Right before I plunged into this immersive novel, I visited the Museum of the Drug Store in Guthrie, Oklahoma. It was the perfect “pre-game” experience for me to wander the mysterious aisles of vials and bottles, lightly scented still with herbs and potions.
I carried those images and smells with me into The Lost Apothecary, the story of three women, past and present, who are bound together by a 1791 secret apothecary with a dark mission. We meet Nella, a broken woman once betrayed in the worst possible way by a man. She is using the healing potion mixing skills learned at her mother’s knee to help abused women get rid of their abusers. Sounds awful, but somehow the reader comes to understand and even root for Nella and her shattered customers. We may not condone her methods, but we understand her motives. Eliza is a 12-year-old ladies’ maid who comes to the hidden shop at the behest of her mistress. Nella is at first resistant to bring an innocent child into her business, but soon the two have bonded. One is daughterless and the other, motherless.
In present day London, Caroline is on an anniversary trip from Ohio—alone. Right before leaving she finds out that her husband had been unfaithful. Once an aspiring historian, a heartbroken Caroline finds balm in digging, literally, into the past. A mudlarking venture (hunting along the River Thames banks for buried treasure unearthed by the tides) leads her to an old vial with markings that could be an address. Her long-suppressed desire to study history emerges quickly, and Caroline follows the clues through a rousing mystery across the centuries.
With a pinch of magical realism, this novel explores themes of motherhood, loss, women’s autonomy and the difference between fulfillment and happiness. Readers of faith will be appalled by the loss of life here, yet they will understand Nella’s motives to set things right in her own fallen way. Those sensitive to language and sexual scenes should rejoice: There is very little of either in this mainstream novel.
It’s no surprise that this debut novel hit The New York Times list. The characters are deeply drawn and the plot hooks you and does not let up until the last page. Twists and surprises along the way keep readers on their toes. When I turned the last page, it was all I could do not to jump on a plane and go mudlarking in London. That experience is definitely going on my bucket list. (Harlequin Trade Publishing)