Ugh. The cover for this one was so pretty, and I kept seeing it on bookstore shelves, so when I finally was able to snap up a library copy I was really excited. The back cover promises a woman apothecary in the 1700s who helps other women kill all the Bad Men who were oppressing them? Yes please! Alas, this was a lot of promise without the delivery and I was mostly disappointed. FYI that there are some spoilers in my review below.
Penner’s novel follows twin timelines that intersect, the story of Nella Clavinger, apothecary in 1700s London, and the present day story of Caroline Parcewell, who is visiting London alone after she finds out her husband has been having an affair. Nella’s story is by far the more interesting. She operates a women’s apothecary shop down Bear Alley, a hidden back alley in central London. She took over the apothecary practice from her mother, who had been a healer, but a traumatic event in her own life has caused her to practice a darker kind of medicine, available only to women and only for use on men. One of Nella’s clients brings along her lady’s maid, 12 year old Eliza, who takes in interest in apprenticing with Nella. Nella is reluctant but her health is failing and so she accepts the help, leading to an unfortunate incident where an apothecary’s bottle with an etched glass bear, a calling card of sorts to prevent confusion as her clients are mixing her potions into their intended victim’s dinner or drink. When her bottle is identified as an item of interest following a suspicious death, Nella and Eliza are both in trouble.
Centuries later, Caroline is casting about for something to fill her time on what should have been an anniversary trip with her husband. A mudlarking tour of the Thames is starting just as she is walking by so she joins in and finds an apothecary bottle with a bear etched on it. From there we get the dual stories of Caroline’s marriage troubles (her good for nothing husband follows her to London despite her asking him not to) and her investigations of the apothecary bottle.
All sounds pretty good in theory, right? Sadly, the frustration is in the details- even in Nella’s more interesting story, my skepticism about her running this business was high. She operates from a ‘shop within a shop’, where messages can be left in a barrel of grain in the front and her hidden shop is behind a false wall in the back. My biggest issue is that once she receives a message she brings the women into the back of the shop- so any unsatisfied customer or undercover snooper would easily find the back of shop (I gather the police force at the time would have been nascent and all male, but still it seems like a silly risk to take). Then, despite having this hiding place at their fingertips, when the police do trace the bottle to her alley (not from a tip but their own detective work, which seems like a leap in a London full of alleys), they don’t even use the hiding spot! They run for their lives down the streets, which is a real waste of a false wall.
Caroline’s story has its own bigger problems. She’s more of a sad sack to begin with, having given up all of her dreams of being a historian to follow her husband home to a family business where she does the bookkeeping. She’s been wanting to have children but her husband has been putting it off, likely as she finds out just before the book starts, because he’s been having an affair. Finding the bottle triggers Caroline to remember how much she loved “old things” and inspires her to consider a masters degree. None of this is incredibly damning on its own, but Caroline gives her loser husband way more chances than a reasonable woman should which does not make for an inspiring heroine. Additionally, Penner seems to be trying to show us just how clever and intrepid Caroline actually is by having her discover the apothecary shop, which remains untouched all these centuries later, just sitting there in a London back alley waiting to be discovered! Ah yes, the great wasteland of central London, where such things are possible. Penner, have you ever BEEN to London? Grrr.
The ending of Nella’s story somewhat redeems the issues I had with her story, but the ending to Caroline’s just doesn’t pass the sniff test of my inner skeptic.
It seems a little cheeky, but counting this one as Libations for cbr13bingo- these potions were made to be drunk…