Publication date: March 2nd 2021
Publisher: Park Row
ISBN: 0778311015 (US hardcover)
ISBN13: 9780778311010 (US hardcover)
Summary: Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.
Meanwhile in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.
When this book came up as a selection for Book of the Month in March, it was an instant pick for me. Apothecaries, murders, and London? Sign me right the hell up. Not to mention that cover; absolutely gorgeous.
For me, this book was a quick read, both because of its length and the immediate investment I had in the fate of the characters, particularly Nella and Eliza. One thing I noticed quite glaringly is I cared little for Caroline or her involvement, while at the time understanding her purpose in the story. Something about her simply just… needled me. It seemed she loved to blame her bitterness on others rather than coming to terms with her responsibility in the matter. That, however, is my largest complaint about the story.
The London setting was richly atmospheric, especially Past London. I almost felt as though I was the one walking the cobbled streets. Even as Caroline’s present-day London vacation began with her stumbling around the Thames at low tide, I found myself planted firmly within the story. Nella’s shop, tucked away in a back alley, is illicit in her times but an incredible mystery in present day that I wish would’ve been explored more thoroughly in a way we could’ve seen.
The plot itself is fascinating and though I don’t know if this was the author’s intent, sounds strikingly similar to the murders carried out by Giulia Tofana in 1600s Italy. If you don’t know that tale, look it up immediately. I loved the way the story wove its way between the past and present, unraveling pieces of the mystery for the reader that Caroline would never get to know. There is a moment that connects the present and past together so perfectly, and it’s a moment I wish I could touch on without being spoilery, but it was the moment that cemented this book as one of my favorites (so far) of 2021.
Though I found the ending to be missing something very small—SPOILER which is that Nella’s fate should’ve been clearer—I absolutely loved this book. I would love to learn more of Nella’s past, whether in another book or short story, but one could only wish, right? This was Sarah Penner’s debut and it made me so eager to get to read more from her!