Book Reviews

Book Reviews: No. 4: The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

Let’s be clear. This was no ordinary apothecary.

Cece Reviews the Read

Book Reviews:  No. 4:  The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

Let’s be clear.

This was no ordinary apothecary.

In fact, the mission of this particular apothecary was to service women by dispensing tinctures of poison that they could administer to their chosen ‘person’ whether it be philandering husbands, abusive brothers, or ‘les hommes à rien de bon.’ (Men who were up to no good).

The novel opens with Nella, the apothecary’s proprietor, receiving a note from a woman who was coming at daybreak to visit the shoppe at 3 Back Alley. Her request?  A tincture of poison ‘for my mistress’s husband, with his breakfast. Daybreak, 4 Feb.’ (1791).

When the apothecary was run by Nella’s mother, it was a compounding shoppe for the greater good. But under Nella’s directorship, which is motivated by the wrongs done to her, the killing and secret-keeping becomes the raison d’être, which ultimately “had begun to rot me, (Nella), from the inside out, and something inside meant to tear me open.”

Now before you decide that you are not into a novel set way back in the day, read on.

This is a story that centers on three women: Nella, who you’ve just met, and Eliza, a young girl who becomes Nella’s helper, both of whom reside in the year 1791.  The other woman, Caroline, a modern inquisitive woman, resides in the present day.

The thread that sews Nella and Caroline’s stories together is twofold: both women have been betrayed, Nella by her lover, and Caroline by her husband. Nella, is “an empty vessel (for her lover Frederick’s) lust,” and Caroline has been betrayed by an affair her husband James was having, a dalliance she finds out about mere days before the couple were to leave for London, England, to celebrate their 10th anniversary.

The two women’s paths intersect across the centuries when Caroline finds one of Nella’s old ‘tincture’ apothecary bottles in a London river where she is ‘mudlarking.’

The key to a novel of this kind is to be able to make the dialogue between the ages believable, without missteps, and Penner has done an admirable job of it. When I was reading the Nella and Eliza chapters, I was wondering how Caroline was doing and what she was up to. And when I was helping Caroline deal with old maps of London and the hidden alleys that might have housed the apothecary, (not to mention her dealings with that cad, James), I was anxious to get to the next chapter to check on Nella and Eliza.

Penner also does some fine work dropping the reader into a 17th Century time capsule through the art of painting imaginative pictures in evocative phrases.

“One of the constables carried a rod in his hand, as though the shadows of the alley scared him.”


“Without so much as a groan, as though grateful to be discovered at last, the hidden door (of the apothecary) swung open.”

A good read to enjoy over a cuppa, The Lost Apothecary is a delightful unexpected treasure, with an enjoyable dash of history thrown in.

Want more reads?

Check out Cece’s review of the breaking-all-publishing-records THE PUSH by Ashley Audrain   bookblasts (

And the Robert Rotenberg’s DOWNFALL review Book Reviews: No. 3 DOWNFALL (

Cece is the feature cover writer for several prestigious publications and is an informed, connected and enthusiastic book blogger at  Her first book, The Love Story, was published in 2019. Her second book will be coming out in the spring of 2021.

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