This is the second version of this review I’ve written because I did the classic dumb thing where I wrote a huge review in the GR review space and didn’t back it up (AND NEITHER DID GOODREADS EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO NOW). I had about 2,500 words written and I wasn’t done, and I had a lot of thoughts, many of them snarky and sort of mean*. I’m not sure how much what I’m about to write will resemble what I wrote yesterday, but who knows, maybe it will be better. (Robert Louis Stevenson apparently threw the first draft of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into the fire because his wife hated it, and then he proceeded to rewrite it from memory, so who knows! Not that I’m comparing myself to RLS, it’s just I think it’s a cool story and I wanted to talk about it.)
*Part of me always feels bad writing a one star review, but in this case the book was a hit and a commercial success, and most people have liked it. On my Book of the Month app, it shows that only 6% of people have disliked it. I feel like the author will be fine.
The things this book does well and the things it doesn’t are like if an ant was sitting next to an oak tree. Tiny, huge. I caught on pretty quickly that this book and I were not going to get along so I started making notes of passages I could use as examples to back myself up, which is something I very rarely do in reviews because I’m usually too busy reading to do much of anything else (and I only read romances on Kindle, which does have a really easy to use bookmarking feature). But I took the time to do it this time. I knew as soon as the main character in the present timeline starting moaning about how she gave up graduate school to get married, and about how she hadn’t read one of her beloved books in years that things weren’t going to go well here. You can be married and go to graduate school! You can read books on your own time! This is not a real problem (as presented in the way the author wrote it, anyway; being manipulated into giving up your dream career by a shitheel husband could have been a good conflict here).
Also, am not sure if the author is aware that Cambridge is not the only graduate school? There are other graduate schools! Even ones in Ohio! But nope, MC Caroline is like, CAMBRIDGE OR NOTHING MOTHERFUCKERS. WOE IS ME. Hilariously, at the end of the book, she does end up applying to Cambridge (more on the laughability of this later) and just starts assuming she will get in. Did you guys know that Cambridge lets everyone in?
Okay but just as a baseline, I should probably briefly (or not so briefly) outline the plot. The book takes place in two timelines. The first timeline features aforementioned Caroline, who has just discovered her husband’s infidelity on the eve of their 10th anniversary trip to London. She goes without him, wisely needing some time alone to get some emotional distance and reevaluate her life. She happens to find an old vial with the etching of a bear on it while mudlarking in the Thames, and this launches her on an investigation into an old apothecary that was murdering dudes with poison. (After, it must be noted, doing the Researching for Dummies version of historical research, and yet somehow still managing to unearth documents unseen for over two hundred years, and find a historical site that somehow remains untouched in the middle of London. But let’s put all that aside for now.) Which brings me to the second timeline, that of the apothecary who was murdering the dudes: Nella, in 1791 London. A little girl named Eliza gets caught up with Nella after her mistress pays Nella to concoct a poison to kill her gross, rapist, pedophiliac husband. But before much of anything else can happen, things go to shit when a Lady also wants Nella to poison someone: the mistress of her husband, but Nella won’t do it because she doesn’t kill women.
So that sounds pretty good, right? Moral ambiguity, old secrets, cool historical details, smashing the patriarchy with poison? You would think so, but no. Nothing in that above summary was emotionally fulfilling as it played out in the book.
Before I start ripping on all the stuff that didn’t work, I do want to mention that there were some things in this book that I thought it did well. The author clearly did a lot of research into poisons and apothecaries, and I really believed that Nella was good at what she did. That was really the only aspect of the worldbuilding that felt real to me. Reading about her past customers and how she murdered gross dudes for them was fun. (But I wanted a lot more of it!) Also worth noting, that I could tell the author went mudlarking in the Thames herself even before she mentioned it in the notes. But that’s as much of a downer as an upper I’m afraid, because that whole scene had the air of someone trying to shoehorn in details that didn’t fit the flow of the narrative (a problem this book suffers from as a whole). I also did like all the bits where Caroline stands up to her bag of dicks husband. At a couple points she just calmly goes off on him, sets her boundaries, and holds firm. That was emotionally satisfying. Maybe the only thing in here that was.
To sum up what I thought this book did wrong: Everything about it was shallow. Shallow characters, shallow writing, shallow (and obvious) exploration of themes. Often it felt like the author was transcribing straight from Google to dialogue, and it was awkward and forced as hell. Poor plotting, no distinction between POVs (all three characters over two very different time periods sound exactly the same), lack of historical verisimilitude in dialogue and vocabulary, an almost complete lack of subtlety, trite resolutions and conclusions, constant telling not showing, overdramatic writing (somebody with a Kindle do a search for how many times these characters gasp; it’s a lot, and it’s mostly unwarranted), lack of logistics and things being thought through (a medic would not look through people’s papers and things and then would not force that person to speak to the cops! a medic does not arrest people! a medic would not have done any of this!), overly obvious authorial telegraphing (i.e. Caroline making a big ass deal of finding a vial she knows nothing about and just knowing it’s important and MEANS SOMETHING), and an overall sense of the author trying real hard but not knowing how to tell a story so that it becomes real in a reader’s head. Mostly, it all just felt like a huge waste of premise botched in execution. I mean, that’s basically everything, right? If I’m being fair, some of that can be attributed to personal taste, but a lot of it just feels pretty objective to me.
I bookmarked like twenty-five spots that felt notably bad to me, but that seems like overkill, so I’m just going to mention a few. Putting them under a spoiler tag, because spoilers.
SPOILERS AHOY: While Caroline is mudlarking: “This glass object—delicate and yet still intact, like myself—was proof that I could be brave, adventurous, and do hard things on my own.”
I want to be really clear here: this chick was walking in the mud and picked up a bottle. This is what she calls brave? Lady what.
While trespassing: “I gasped in realization, covering my mouth with my hand. The space where the shelves were dislodged was about my height, and only slightly wider than me. Instinctively, I took a step back. ‘No,’ I said involuntarily, the word echoing in the tiny, empty room. ‘No, no, no. It can’t be.’ And yet, I knew as I said the words that I’d stumbled on something. An interior door.”
I just can’t with this reaction. I suppose there is someone somewhere who would react this way when uncovering a secret door in an old apothecary shop, but personally, I think an “Oh, shit!” is much more warranted. Also, please note the gasp, instance 680 of 1013. This is also a perfect example of the writing going for melodrama instead of subtlety.
Literally ten minutes after deciding to commit suicide: “I did not care enough to question her about it; let the child take what she wants. Greater concerns awaited me. After all, our very lives were at stake.”
This is not the reaction of someone about to jump off a bridge. Not sure if this is a lack of continuity at fault or poor characterization, but either way, it’s dumb.
“In the face of this hard goodbye, and very soon, my own departure from life, Eliza’s inquisitive spirit and youthful energy were salves upon my heart. I never met my own daughter, but I suspected she would have been much like the girl standing next to me. I put my arm around Eliza’s shoulder and pulled her close to me.”
This is supposed to be a big emotional moment for Nella, and it falls completely flat. Stop telling me this shit and show me! We don’t need to be spoon fed that Nella sees Eliza as a surrogate daughter and sees in her the daughter she was never allowed to have. Saying it makes it less impactful. There are many other ways this point could have been gotten across that would have created actual feeling in the reader instead of inducing an eyeroll. Also, “suspected” is the wrong word here, anyway. She should have used “hoped”.
“This was my last chance to escape unscathed; my last chance to salvage a remnant of our friendship.”
For context, the “friendship” she’s talking about is that of a woman, Gaynor, she’s known for two days, and they are not friends at all. The woman works at the library and has been helping Caroline do research, and that’s it. And the thing that is all set to “ruin” this friendship? She didn’t share every single piece of info she had with her? Even though they hadn’t seen each other since she discovered it?? Somebody please explain to me how Caroline owes this woman anything. She’s all worried that not having shown her the discovery of the apothecary shop and the ledger that Nella wrote her clients’ details and orders in is some kind of betrayal. It’s not. It’s literally not a problem. Which is what makes it all the more stupid when the woman does get upset about it. SIGH.
“I might not have had an advanced degree in history, but pride swelled within me at the monumental discovery I’d made.”
What the what are you talking about, monumental? What is even happening right now in this woman’s head. Her sense of scale and reality are completely out of wack. Shove your pride back where it came from and bring it out when it’s earned.
“After all the outrageous things I’d done in London this week, it was this that most surprised me. ‘I applied to grad school at Cambridge last night.’ In an instant Gaynor’s eyes filled with tears, catching the reflection of the lights overhead. She set the book down and placed a hand on each of my shoulders. ‘Caroline, I am so proud of you.'”
SHE HAS KNOWN HER FOR THREE DAYS. Tears???????? Also, you can’t apply for graduate school at Cambridge in one night!!! What is going on!!!! (I double checked on this. You need two reference letters from professors along with the electronic application. Ain’t no way Caroline managed to dig some up in an hour. Not to mention the time a real person would have spent researching the options. This is just so lazy and trite and awful, and it’s in the end, what made me one star the book.) END SPOILERS
Do not recommend. One star.
[1.5 stars, the extra half star is for when she told off her husband and for the poisoning descriptions]