The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, this dual timeline fictional novel was so much fun to listen to….I was captivated by both stories about women in relationships, trying to take control of their lives and loved how they intertwined as the narrative progressed.
It all starts in 18th century England, where Nella inherited the apothecary shop from her mother, who mixed potients and herbs to heal women. Nella, touched by heartache and betrayal, had her own ideas about women, power and control and became the source to go to for women looking to eliminate men in their lives. Located in a back room and down an alley in London, Nella’s apothecary secretly mixed tinctures and poisons, and the only rules were that the potions could not be used on women, and a record must be kept of all clients and their victims. When Eliza, a twelve year old customer looking for a deadly poison for her boss’s husband, made a fatal error, Nella and the shop were in danger.
Hundreds of years later, in present time, Caroline, at a roadblock in her relationship, is celebrating her 10th wedding anniversary alone on a trip to London. She and her husband are desperately trying to have a baby and once she finds out he was cheating on her, she decides to stand up for herself and consider her future. At a crossroads and trying to get her mind off her own problems, she decides to go mudlarking when she comes across a small blue vial. An historian at heart, Caroline’s curiosity leads her to research its origin and the mystery of centuries old unsolved murders.
We follow Eliza and Nella’s troubles and at the same time we get closer and closer to the truth through Caroline’s digging into the past. The two stories are alternately told in a gripping manner with chapter ending cliffhangers that kept me engaged. The stories about willful women controlling their destinies connect, and the mysteries of history are revealed in a surprising finish! I enjoyed every minute of it; I recommend listening to The Lost Apothecary….I loved the narrator and her voices!
If you are intrigued by stories of poison and can’t get enough, check out At the Wolf’s Table by Rosella Postorino.
Q & A with Sarah Penner, author of The Lost Apothecary
Q: What inspired you to write The Lost Apothecary?
A: When the idea for this story first came to me, I envisioned a woman—an apothecary—working from a hidden shop in a dark London alleyway. But, I knew I wanted there to be something sinister about her, and this quickly led me down the path of poison. I clung to this initial vision throughout the writing of the book. The word apothecary is evocative, drawing forth visions of a candlelit storefront with sash windows, its walls lined with mortar bowls and pestles, and countless glass bottles. There is something beguiling, even enchanting, about what might lie within those bottles: potions that bewitch us, cure us, kill us. I aimed to develop this enchantment within the story, to really make the reader feel like he or she had stepped into the old apothecary shop.
Q: Why did Nella create the rules for her shop? (1. Poisons were only for women to administer to men 2. There must be a record of each woman customer and her victim?)
A: The apothecary in my story has a very important rule: the name of every woman who steps into her shop must be recorded in the apothecary’s register. She says, “For many of these women, this may be the only place their names are recorded. The only place they will be remembered. There are few places for a woman to leave an indelible mark…But this register preserves them—their names, their memories, their worth.”
When critics say that modern authors are imposing our worldview on women of the past, I heartily disagree: women have always been brave, but like the apothecary says above, they were often left without a voice—no place to leave that indelible mark, particularly if they were middle- or low-class. As authors, we might have to make a few assumptions about motive, but there’s zero doubt that the women of eras past were frustrated, voiceless, and thus often rebellious.
Q: I love the women’s camaraderie and the keeping of secrets. Your women characters have wonderful friendships – Nella and Eliza, and Caroline and Gaynor. What influenced you to develop these relationships?
A: There are many feminist elements in The Lost Apothecary. It’s a story about three women, each yearning for things that have been hindered, in some way, by the men in their lives. And as the apothecary interacts with each of her clients, we learn that her customers—all women—have encountered the same. It makes for thought-provoking discussion, the many ways the women in the story react to this hindrance. Some approaches are sinister, others are not. It opens up questions of morality and our rights as women, and it’s interesting to consider how those rights have changed (or not) over the last two hundred years.
Q: Do you have a connection to London and have you ever gone mudlarking?
A: Mudlarking means playfully hunting the riverbed for old or valuable artifacts, and the present-day narrative of my story begins with a woman who goes mudlarking along the River Thames in central London. Mudlarking has been around for hundreds of years. Victorian children used to scrounge around in the mud looking for items to sell. Today, mudlarking isn’t meant to support the livelihood of a family, but instead represents a pastime for locals and tourists alike.
I went myself in the summer of 2019, wearing old tennis shoes and blue latex gloves. In my backpack was a small card—my temporary license from the Port of London Authority (PLA), granting me access to go mudlarking on the river’s foreshore. Over the course of several days, I went down to the river three separate times, finding an assortment of pottery, clay pipes, metal pins, even animal bones. It was so enjoyable because I was outside, away from the popular museums and libraries, but still digging (literally) into real history. Be forewarned, though: you must have a permit from the PLA, and you have to study the tide tables beforehand. The tide of the Thames rises 24 feet twice a day, so you need to carefully research when you can safely hunt the riverbed. I recorded a short video on my YouTube if you’re interested!
Q: How did you do research for this novel?
A: Researching the many herbal and homespun remedies for this story was a time-consuming, albeit entertaining, task. I spent time in the British Library, sifting through old manuscripts and druggist diaries; I reviewed digitized pharmacopeias; and I studied extensively some well-known poisoning cases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I was surprised by the number of plants and herbs that are highly toxic, and I was fascinated while reading about the clever, if ineffective, remedies used by the predecessors of modern-day pharmacists.
One of the more interesting (and serendipitous!) discoveries I made occurred early in my research. Today, forensic toxicology is advanced, and coroners can quickly detect poisons in human tissue during an autopsy. But this science didn’t exist until the mid-1800s, approximately fifty years after my book takes place. So, the 1790s was a perfect time for an apothecary like the one in my story to run a hidden shop; she could “get away with murder,” so to speak, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible even five decades later.
Q: What prompted you to explore poisons?
A: I knew I wanted the apothecary to be sinister, and poison was the most natural, organic way into this.
Q: What message do you want readers to take away after reading The Lost Apothecary?
A: The Lost Apothecary is very much a story about women controlling their own destinies. There are dark aspects to the story—like the burden of secrets and the destructive pursuit of vengeance—but it is also a story of hope and the way women can protect, honor, and free one another, even when separated by the barrier of time. I hope that when turning the final page, readers will feel connected to this sense of loyalty and better appreciate how we can honor the women in our own lives. Of course, I also hope the book is a form of escapism. It’s a historical mystery, and I hope that anyone who loves sleuthing or uncovering old documents will find themselves lost in the pages!
Q: Did you write the chapters about the 18th century separate from the present day story or did you write it in the order it occurs in the book?
A: I drafted them individually to maintain voice of each timeline, then during revisions, worked the book as a cohesive whole.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your process? Do you do anything special when developing your characters prior to working on the story?
A: I just dove right in! I developed a one-page premise with hook, stakes, conflict…then started dabbling in research….then began drafting. I get to know my characters as I write; I don’t do a ton of digging into them until I see how they act on the page.
Q: How long did it take you to write the book and how long before you found a publisher?
A: About a year to write and a couple more months to revise. I signed with an agent within about a month of finishing, then we worked on more revisions for a few months and ultimately sold the book overnight to Park Row Books.
Q: I love the cover…How much control of the cover design did you have?
A: It was a collaborative process. The art team at Harlequin was open to my various ideas. A video with more information on the process is here! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUvOLsLFKHc
Q: What is your day job and how has that influenced your writing?
A: I’ve worked in Finance for thirteen years. It taught me discipline; for years, I’ve had to wake up at 5 am to write before work. I recently quit my day job and am now a full-time writer, and that hard-earned discipline has stuck with me!
Q: Huge congratulations on your success! Are you surprised at the instant notoriety you have received? Why do you think the book resonates with so many people?
A: It’s been a whirlwind and such a humbling joy to see the instant success of The Lost Apothecary. It seems to have hit a cultural nerve, and I think part of this is the originality of the story premise (a poisoner apothecary) and also the elements of magical realism. Throughout the story, the reader is constantly wondering whether magic is, or is not, real. It’s a bit like life…who of us haven’t wondered if there’s some other force at play in our lives?
Q: In The Lost Apothecary – if it were to become a movie, who would you want to play Nella, Eliza and Caroline?
A: Nella would be Kathy Bates. As for the others – I’m terrible with pop culture and rarely watch TV. I never know how to answer this question!
Q: What books have you read lately that you recommend?
A: I love and highly recommend THE ROSE CODE by Kate Quinn! Historical fiction at its best.
About Sarah Penner:
I was born and raised in northeast Kansas, growing up in a small log cabin nestled deep in the woods. This picturesque retreat, where I lived until early adulthood, frames most of my early memories.
I began writing seriously in 2015, after attending a moving lecture given by Elizabeth Gilbert. She was on tour for Big Magic, a game-changing book for creatives. Soon after her talk, I enrolled in my first online creative writing class. I haven’t looked back since.
I’m an avid traveler, though my heart is stuck in London. Other favorite destinations include Thailand, Ireland, Germany, Belize, and Grand Cayman.
I graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in finance, and I’ve spent the last decade in various corporate finance functions. I love my day-job: numbers and spreadsheets appeal to my analytical side.
When I’m not writing, you’ll likely find me in the kitchen, the yoga studio, or running outdoors in the Florida heat.
I’m married to my best friend, Marc. We’re proud residents of the Sunshine State, where we live with our “silky hair” miniature dachshund, Zoe.