I am puzzled as to why so many authors have recently taken to writing braided narratives as they are very hard to do. (Especially for debut authors.) Inevitably the part set in the present day is a lot less interesting than the part set in the past, and the exasperated reader is left wishing the author had ditched the former for the latter.

Such is the case with debut author Sarah Penner’s THE LOST APOTHECARY.  Like many readers I really could have done without the frayed 21st marriage of Caroline & her husband (whose name I forget, as he was really so forgettable.) Instead, I really wish Ms Penner had put her energies into getting the past right. It was jarring to have everything in meters in England in the 18th century, when meters were only just coming into being, in France, after the French Revolution. And I haven’t even mentioned all the problems with language that many readers noted, which ruined the atmosphere of a novel set in London in the late 18th century.

This was all the more disappointing because THE LOST APOTHECARY is such a brilliant concept. Who wouldn’t love to read about feisty women from the past who get their revenge on all the men who treat them so contemptuously and with such lack of respect? Poisoning with clever techniques for hiding the evidence is the ultimate crime.

Unfortunately, the way it was handled didn’t bring out all the juicy possibilities. For one thing, Nella (we never know her last name) the apothecary is too guilty. I understand how she feels, but her never-ending guilt makes her too one-dimensional and as her character never changes, over time this begins to pall.

And then there is Liza, her 12-year-old would-be assistant. I loved Liza, she is entirely charming. But again, there is no character development.

How I wish that instead of the story Ms. Penner chose to tell, we could have had a tale in which we were privy to a string of men’s bad deeds to women in the late 18th century, and how the women plotted their revenge and got away with it…until they didn’t. That would have provided a magnificent story arc with bags of tension. Instead we got a tired, dying apothecary and a too-young girl who tried to help…and didn’t

Which was a great pity. Three stars.

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