In January, I raced through six books. My Goodreads reading challenge applauded my progress, and my reading stats spreadsheet began to take shape.
Initially, this thrill of watching the genre pie chart evolve with each new book kept me reading, but then I burnt out.
In February, I only finished two books. One of them was an audiobook and the other one a graphic novel, quick, easy reads that I could take in almost passively.
I had hit the dreaded reading slump, where I just couldn’t seem to find a book that gripped me.
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I can always tell I need a break from my usual reading habits when I read a book I would normally love and feel myself instead of getting annoyed at minor character details and rolling my eyes at my favorite tropes.
Towards the end of January, I fell into this mode. I tired myself out on romantic comedy and memoirs and felt at a loss for what else to pick up.
Then, while browsing for my monthly book subscription pick, my eyes landed on the gorgeous purple cover of The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner. Intrigued, I read the synopsis, only to be disappointed.
A story about a woman who runs an apothecary specializing in poisons? That is not a book for me, I thought. I don’t do mystery, or death, or poison, or books about murder.
Yet I had to use that Book of the Month credit somehow, and after all, wasn’t I looking for something outside the norm?
A small voice reminded me that the last few books I’d acquired for similar reasons stayed on my shelves well over a year before I even cracked them open.
But didn’t I end up loving A Woman is No Man when I finally got around to it?
The “buy the book with the pretty cover” side of the argument won, and soon enough that beautiful hardback arrived on my doorstep. I stared down at it, wondering if I’d ever read it.
It took a few days, but finally, I picked it up. And I am so glad I did.
The Lost Apothecary takes on the difficult narrative task of alternating between multiple protagonists across timelines.
A woman on an unexpectedly solo honeymoon to London discovers an apothecary bottle and unearths her old historian tendencies to find out its past. In the other timeline, that past unfolds on the page before us in the stories of the apothecary and a young girl who becomes her friend.
I will readily admit that this kind of flipping back and forth between stories in different timelines is one of my pet peeves. If done poorly, it often feels like a cheap trick to invent suspense by snapping the reader away at just the right — wrong — moment to make a story more interesting.
When done well, however, it can create a page-turning, enthralling read. Penner pulls it off with aplomb. These women’s stories manage to speak to one another in a powerful way without feeling cheap or coincidental.
Caroline’s reasons for trying to uncover the past feel authentic as part of her character and story. The deeper connections between her and the apothecary shine through to the reader without becoming implausibly obvious to Caroline herself. She learns what we might expect her to, and many of the apothecary’s lost secrets remain her own.
Rather, readers learn about the past in a way that isn’t gimmicky or reliant upon what Caroline knows. She learns what we might realistically expect her to, and many of the apothecary’s lost secrets remain her own.
Through the alternating points of view, Nella and Eliza are allowed their own stories which exist outside the frame of Caroline’s search. They come to life fully as characters in their own right, their stories feeling present and compelling even though they take place years before the present-day timeline.
The plot is a steady, suspenseful build, with a little mystery and intrigue along the way. A nice, plot-heavy book with well-developed characters turned out to be exactly what I needed to re-light the spark in my reading slump.
I finished The Lost Apothecary quickly, finding myself drawn away from video games and podcasts in favor of this compelling read. After finishing it, I went on to read several more books in March, my love for reading newly regained through the spark of a phenomenal read.
I feel The Lost Apothecary is one of those books that’s fully worth the hype.
In it, Penner tells a story that takes us both on an eventful and emotional journey. There are mystery and action, but also real character growth and complexity. I won’t spoil it, but the ending resists simplicity and allows for the messy questions of real life, which I tend to prefer over a neatly tied bow.
I highly recommend this book even if it doesn’t sound like your usual cup of tea. It shouldn’t have been mine, yet it’s easily one of my favorite reads of 2021 so far.
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