Lost in translation: A review of The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

A copy of The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner, a purple hardback book with a bottle and flowers on the cover, with live flowers surrounding it that are pink, green, and white

Have you ever just wanted to love a book SO much, and no matter how much you try, it just doesn’t seem to work out? That’s how I felt about The Lost Apothecary, unfortunately. Billed by Book of the Month as a historical fantasy and touted by just about everyone else as the next big hit, I felt in my heart it was going to be one of my favorite reads of March, if not 2021! While there was still much to like about it, it fell ended up falling a bit flat for me.

Quick synopsis: In 18th century London, a mysterious apothecary named Nella sells her goods to a specific clientele — woman looking to escape oppressive lives at the men in their lives. When 12-year-old Eliza comes into her shop, an unspeakable accident will put everything Nella has worked for at risk. In modern-day London, Caroline goes on vacation alone to escape heartbreaking news about her marriage and discovers a token from the past that will force all three women’s lives to intersect.

There was much to like about this book — I enjoyed the three main characters, but especially Nella and Eliza. I thought Penner’s character development with them was excellent as was the plotline, so much so that I sort of dreaded when I’d start a chapter based in modern-day London! Not that I didn’t like Caroline, but I do have a fascination with that time period and found Nella’s mission (and Eliza’s role in it) to help women admirable. It felt timely, important, and transcendent of time, which is clear in how that same oppression from men catches up with Caroline in modern time as she deals with marriage issues.

Overall, however, I didn’t enjoy the writing style. I felt that it was a little too much telling versus showing, so I didn’t feel myself transported into this story the way I had hoped. There were also a couple of plot points that felt rushed (but I won’t mention because of spoilers). Additionally — and this was probably my biggest issue — I felt a sort of disconnect between how the past storyline and the present storyline were supported to relate. I think for me, I hoped for a much stronger connection to tie them all together. Individually, each story was good, but together, it felt too disparate and forced.

But most importantly, I really thought there’d be more fantasy involved since it was billed as a historical fantasy genre. Book of the Month has typically done a great job labeling their picks in my opinion, and based off past options that are in this genre, I was expecting more fantasy, such as Addie LaRue, The Library of Legends, Things in Jars, or Gods of Jade and Shadow. I didn’t think The Lost Apothecary had nearly as much fantasy — perhaps just a touch of magical realism, but even for me, it felt a bit of a stretch.

That said, there are so many awesome reviewers out there that have rained praises upon this book! So while this book didn’t live up to its hype for me, I still think that many will love it and connect greatly with its story. For those who like historical fiction, female-powered books, or stories with parallel storylines, this would probably be an awesome fit. But if you, like me, were thinking this was going to have a lot of fantasy elements, this may fall flat based off the genre description alone.

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