I recently finished reading The Lost Apothecary, a debut novel by Sarah Penner. While not what most would consider Witch Lit, I’m going to make a case for its inclusion in the fold.
These days, I normally want to read books with a heavy bit of romance, but a tale about a hidden poison shop to help women take revenge against the men who wronged them? Sign me up for that! Penner’s novel focuses on friendship, self-care, and falling back in love with old interests. The plot deftly jumps back and forth between time and three characters – Nella, Eliza, and Caroline. After a slow start, I was soon on the edge of my seat!
Caroline lives in present-day America. She travels to London following her husband’s infidelity and uses the trip that would have celebrated their ten-year anniversary as a means of reflection. She ends up finding an old apothecary bottle and, driven by curiosity and a desperate need for distraction, she rediscovers her penchant for research and English history.
Now let’s dig into the witchy characters. Nella and Eliza are from the past. The first is an older woman who owns an apothecary. She is the sort many (especially in the past) would label a witch. Well-versed in plants that can heal and maim, loner Nella uses her knowledge to help women in need from the outskirts of society. She has a deep respect for the plant kingdom, but she adamantly puts her trust in their properties and her humble understanding of science rather than spirits.
Eliza, on the other hand, believes in magic and ghosts. As a child who unexpectedly enters Nella’s life, the girl believes she is haunted and hopes the old woman has the means to assist her. Throughout the course of the novel, Eliza pursues a magical book and eventually uses it in an attempt to save them both. Though a much more subtle development, the girl grows into the early version of a modern witch.
Perusing other reviews, this seems to be the sort of novel people either enjoy or hate. I’ve seen some disdain toward certain characters’ melodrama, but given what they’re going through, their insecurities and fears made sense to me. When faced with upheaval, we may not always behave in ways society deems rational. We may jump fences or bridges and put all our hope into a potion, and yet that is what witchcraft can be for many. Groping in the dark, seeking the unknown to find ourselves, to remake ourselves. The allure of powerful plants is there for those who feel their back against the wall. I believe that certain detractors may have missed the subtleties in Penner’s use of genre, and I argue The Lost Apothecary is both historical fiction and magical realism, especially toward the end.
If you enjoy plant lore, coming-of-age, historical dramas, and what is often referred to as “chick lit,” you should pour yourself a cup of tea and cozy up with this novel.