I learned about this book from one of my friends’ book clubs. I heard the words apothecary, London, poison, possible female serial killer, so naturally, I was interested.
The book cover had praising references about this debut novel with words like ‘convincingly’ and ‘clever.’ So, naturally, I bought the book. I finished reading it this morning and I have mixed feelings.
My first reaction upon learning Eliza’s fate, one of the three female characters, was positive. Will not say anything more because that would spoil the ending.
I am conflicted about Nella but I am even more conflicted about Caroline.
Let’s start at the beginning.
We have a present day storyline about Caroline Parcewell. She lives with husband James in Ohio, USA. And, we have a storyline set in 1791, London, UK. There, we visit the apothecary of Nella Clavinger and meet twelve-year-old housemaid Eliza Fanning.
Eliza’s employer Lady Clarence, sends her to Nella to get a poison to kill her husband’s mistress. Nella, having taken over her mother’s apothecary, does not just have solutions for the average aches and pains, she has an arsenal of options if you want more permanent solutions for your problems. It is a word-of-mouth and women-only business.
The 1791 part of the book gives you the feeling that Penner dug into her research and made a good effort. But the present day story? Not so much.
From the very beginning, Caroline Parcewell comes across as the kind of person you’d like to grab hold off to wake them up by dumping an ice bucket over their head. The complete nonsense ranges from swearing off books and not continuing her education to do a farm’s finances as a once aspiring historian who wants to go to Cambridge.
She has an undergraduate degree in history but could not find that superhigh paying job because those require an advanced degree. She keeps looking though for a decade and it never once occurs to her that the state of Ohio has a very well-established education system where people can get their Ph.D.
So, she doesn’t try to get into Ohio State University but thinks that her husband, James, who will irritate you from the first time that he is mentioned, will gladly emigrate from the USA to the UK without a job lined up for him.
Aside from this, there are several reasons why I think that Penner didn’t research the present day storyline with the same eye for detail as the 1791 one. For example, in the middle of London, prime real estate, is a back alley. I get that, having been in London, there are many. I can also see how some areas are more abandoned than others. What I cannot see is that Caroline finds a door to a long forgotten, lost apothecary that nobody found before, that has not been looted, vandalized, or is marked for demolition to be turned into a modern building. Everything is intact and despite having a degree, she touches old documents not wondering for a minute what sweat can do to old parchment.
As you know, I also dig a lot into archives. So imagine my surprise when Caroline enters a name or a keyword into a search engine and gets immediate results. I get it that you have to move the story along but it would have made it more realistic for the reader to read about the struggle to find accurate information. Which brings me to Gaynor at the Maps desk of the British Library.
Penner should have let Gaynor take over from Caroline as lead character. Gaynor could highlight the databases, the work done at the library, and the efforts needed to search for information from 1791 while Caroline could be left in her hotel trying to figure out whether she should stand up for herself or not.
I will not even go into her arrest but if you read it, let me know what your thoughts are about that scene.
The book has an interesting premise and that is to explore several storylines with themes such as revenge, betrayal, infidelity, and murder. As a debut, it is not bad but it definitely is not good. There are too many gaps, too many flaws, and too many moments where you want to skip the chapters about Caroline so you can keep reading about Eliza and Nella.
The pace is slow, there are no good reasons not to divulge information between the modern day characters as there’s no active crime going on, and there are even less reasons to include the marriage problems. They do not add to the mystery and do not change the plot. They don’t even seem to change the ending.
My other book reviews are here.