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Review: The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner

A stinker! We've got a stinker!

The premise of this novel is a young woman finds an old glass vial while mudlarking on vacation in London, and then we flip back and forth between the story of Caroline in the present-day and the stories of Nella and Eliza, murderous apothecaries in 1791 London who sell poisons to women so that they can do away with the men who have wronged them. But of course things start to go wrong when they are visited by a noblewoman who wants a poison not to do away with her cheating husband, but with the other woman. Promising, right? Well. Shame it ended up being so poorly executed.

First, the writing is sloppy. The narrative flips back and forth between the three main characters, but honestly, the narratives and the viewpoints are completely interchangeable. More than once I found myself having to flip back to the start of the chapter to double-check whose head we were in, because the voices of all three women are identical. And that leads to some pretty horrendous characterization: the speed at which Caroline becomes self-aware is frankly unbelievable; the messy switches in narrative mean that there is very little character development in any of the characters; the barely plausible coincidences that serve as plot points pile up to the point where the suspension of disbelief required is just too high to be attained; and the writing is moralistic, syrupy, melodramatic, gandiloquent, self-important, the rhythm is off, and the attempts at period vocabulary and dialogue in the 18th-century passages smacks of lazy Googling rather than any sort of actual research. It's especially irritating because Sarah Penner seems to think that her readers are incapable of remembering what happened in her novel more than a few pages ago - every time we flip a viewpoint, she takes a couple of pages to remind us of what happened in the previous chapter of that viewpoint. Listen, Sarah, mate. I'm an intelligent woman. I am capable of remembering what happened 15 pages ago in your shitty book. And the dialogue is just... so bad. Nobody, especially not in London, comes up to a stranger and tells them all about mudlarking. It just doesn't happen. Nor does people mudlarking in bleeding February in London. I do not think this woman has ever actually been to England, and so what she's presenting is a totally idealized, totally fictional version of the city that I just could not buy into (also - Londoners don't comment on an American accent unless they're drunk). And seriously, what's with all the soliloquies?

And, right, let's talk about those coincidences. Caroline finds a vial engraved with a bear and within 2 days has miraculously located the lost apothecary's shop and discovered newspaper articles from the time period and the apothecary's notebook has been miraculously preserved in a condemned, dusty hovel for 200 years with no damage? None of this is realistic, Sarah. You are obviously not a historian, your heroine is obviously not a historian, and the dissertation she presents at the end of her six-month master's programme (no, master's programmes do not take 6 months) would never have been accepted or successfully defended at any credible university history department, much less the University of fucking Cambridge. I realize that this is a fantasy novel, I realize that, but the complete disregard by the author and all the characters for even the bare minimum of rigor required for any historical research hurt my history-loving heart beyond what I could handle. For a novel who's main point seems to be that ordinary women are not treated kindly in the historical record, or preserved with any sort of care, Caroline does seem to have access to records about these two apothecaries that are so fucking detailed she might as well have read the novel about them. And we're supposed to believe that Eliza just... miraculously survived her fall from Blackfriars Bridge at the end of the book? I cannot, Ms Penner. Please go to writing classes.

And, seriously, I am so sick of casual misogyny being used as a plot point. It's lazy and beyond annoying.

That's all I've got, folks. This one is a dud and you should skip it. And I think Ms Penner should get a different day job.

Happy reading,


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I’m Amélie, I love books and reading, and I also love talking about them.

I’m incredibly lucky to be bilingual, so I read books in both French and English, and will talk about both of those on here – although I will do more in English, since I know that’s probably what the majority of the people who ever find this blog will be interested in!

I also like history, traveling, Shakespeare, coffee, cheese, musicals, Italian Baroque art, the ballet, Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, flowers, makeup, high heels, and baking. Yes, I’m a walking cliché. I am aware.

Please do tweet at me with any suggestions/book recommendations/thoughts.

In case you’re curious – yes, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time.

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