Sarah Penner creates a historic murder-mystery

By Cynthia Solis

“The Lost Apothecary” is a must-read historical fiction that transports a story from the present to the past. 

 Sarah Penner’s debut novel is number 11 on the hardcover fiction list according to The New York Times. It is a no-brainer. Her novel is famous because it covers themes of mystery, murder, trust and betrayal. 

 When writing “The Lost Apothecary,” Penner alludes to her riverbank adventure, which took place in the summer of 2019. While she was in the water in central London, she found various pottery shards and a little piece of a clay pipe, which she took home to St. Petersburg, Florida. 

 The storyline begins in present-day London, where an aspiring historian decides to take a break from her dreams. 

Caroline Parcewell, joins an expedition that takes her to the Thames river banks after her husband of 10 years cheats and confesses his infidelity. While she is there, she discovers a little blue vial that holds a poison-dispensing apothecary and leads her to a 12-year-old girl who once made a deadly mistake, opening up a 200-year-old mystery. 

 The apothecary can be traced back to 1791, when Nella Clevinger owned and operated a shop. Behind the wall of her shop, she had a storage room containing herbs, bugs and other remedies that were meant to provide women in need with a deadly option. 

During the era in which it was written, women had no alternative when they had an abusive husband, father, brother, or employers and were forced to stay with them. 

As a result, Clevinger would sell them these apothecaries to right a wrong, but she had specific rules- lines drawn into the sand she believed she would never cross. 

 Eliza Fanning is a 12-year-old maid who visits Nella on behalf of her mistress. Her mistress gives her specific instructions of what to look for and who it was for, and although Eliza is young, she is not ignorant of what Nella’s vials contain. 

 When Caroline discovers the vial, it appears to have a mark on it. Caroline deduces it was an address, so she decides to visit the British Library. It is at this point where her dream of becoming a historian is rekindled. 

 This novel is all-consuming from the beginning. Although some may find Nella’s actions somewhat off-putting, Penner offers the reader Nella’s backstory and why she gained control of the apothecary shop, which was once her mother’s one-stop-shop for healing. 

 Although the novel covers the theme of murder, it doesn’t delve into the psychosis of serial killers like many novels typically do. 

“The Lost Apothecary” forces the reader to create an affinity for Nella, Eliza, and Caroline. The readers will find themselves encouraging the characters to find a way around the problems. 

 Something noteworthy about the novel is that “The Lost Apothecary” does start off to a relatively slow start. Still, it is only because Penner attempts to build tension between the reader and go deep into the woman’s psyche. 

 The mystery element in the novel is shown as the characters dig into various problems, Penner disrupts their foundation and shifts their expectations, leaving readers  hoping that the three main characters don’t fall deeper into a ditch that is unbeknownst to them. 

 All of this being said, Nella says, “You cannot be betrayed by someone you don’t trust.” However, the reader can undoubtedly trust “The Lost Apothecary” to keep you turning the pages of a story that refuses to let up until the last sentence in the whole 320 pages.

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