Published by: Piatkus Books
ISBN 13: 9780749954444
Published: February 2011
Format reviewed: Paperback
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Four out of Five
Related Review: The Painter’s Apprentice / The Spice Merchant’s Wife
The Apothecary’s Daughter by Charlotte Betts is a historical/romantic fiction novel. Set in London during the time of the plague, we meet Susannah, the daughter of an apothecarist (as the name of the book suggests). Her father is a widow, his wife having died in childbirth, and he has raised Susannah himself, teaching her how to manage his store in all areas, from making medicines to handling the books – which wasn’t a common thing in the 17th century. Though Susannah’s friends (well, friend) around her marry and have children, she remains alone – devoted to her father and their store, too scared to marry and have children of her own because of what happened to her mother.
However, her father himself remarries and the story leaps forward as Susannah feels out of place and seeks to escape to make her own life – unable to cope with the new additions to the house that include three children. A well-written aspect of this novel is the stepmother. While she is the antagonist of the novel, she’s well rounded and you see her at her worst, at her best, and always with reasons for acting how she does. Unlike other novels with an ‘evil stepmother’, she doesn’t act cruel and nonsensical. She seems real, which gave this novel an edge others generally lack.
A man named Henry Savage soon makes Susannah’s choices much easier. Rich from business in Barbados, he sweeps her off her feet after soothing her doubts, and for a time Susannah thinks she’ll be able to adjust to this new life of becoming a wife, running a house and learning to love her husband. However, Henry’s past brings suffering no one – not even his cousin, William Ambrose, could have warned Susannah about.
There are a few things to point out in this novel. At times it seemed that Susannah got away with a lot more than ‘a woman’ would have, in those days – regardless of whether she had been brought up by her father alone or not. Then the great fire of London, which features in this book, seemed a little haphazard and it wasn’t ever clear exactly where it was blazing… which limited the sense of danger it should have brought.
My other complaint would be with the description on the back itself, which is of no fault of Charlotte Betts, as authors rarely get a say in what the synopsis says. My copy of the book was 400 pages, yet the official synopsis is basically done by page 150, where it then takes a turn to something quite different. I feel the synopsis is slightly misleading – though not in a bad way. The synopsis is engaging enough and the book even more so, but it seemed incredibly odd to be done in such a way.
I finished this book in a day – even though I started it in the evening. I couldn’t put it down, and stayed up well past midnight to find out what happened next. It captures the scene and feel of the time well – you find yourself understanding London itself, as well as how it must have been during plague times as it weaves facts into the story fluidly, from the red paint on the doors to the beaked masks the doctors wore.
This book is an easy and engaging read, an excellent debut novel by Charlotte Betts, who has now released a second book (featuring the same characters) called ‘The Painter’s Apprentice.’ You can find my review of it here.
This review was originally posted at SentientOnline on the 20th September 2011.