When an author threads a story with multiple perspectives that span years, they run the risk that readers will prefer one character’s voice over another, creating a divide in investment that’s difficult to bridge. With The Lost Apothecary, first-time novelist Sarah Penner takes that risk, weaving together the tales of three women separated by more than two centuries but united through pain, fear and hope. In Penner’s case, the risk pays off in a spellbinding way.
In 1791 London, Nella works in her apothecary shop with a very specific purpose: making discreet poisons to help women rid themselves of the dangerous men in their lives. Nella’s work is solitary for good reason, until she meets Eliza, a 12-year-old whose curiosity transforms her from unlikely client to unlikely friend.
Meanwhile in the present, Caroline is making a solo journey to London in the wake of her husband’s infidelity. As she wanders the city, a chance discovery reawakens her long-buried passion for history, and as she seeks her new purpose in life, she just might find it in the story of Nella and Eliza.
What’s most striking about The Lost Apothecary is not how expertly Penner braids the three strands of her story together, though the structure and pacing are certainly well done. What is most admirable is that, as she leaps between first-person perspectives—including two women who are often reflecting on the exact same events—the sense of character never once falters. Their presences and voices are distinct, even as they’re bound by an emotional link that is clear to the reader (though not always clear to the characters). There’s a powerful unity to this story, making it nimble yet sturdy, light yet satiating.
Like in a well-brewed potion, all the ingredients have been given exactly the right level of care and time, and the result is a novel that simply overwhelms with its delicate spell.