The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts
|The Apothecary's Daughter by Charlotte Betts|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Sue Fairhead|
|Summary: An exciting and realistic debut novel set in the era of the bubonic plague in London. An apothecary's daughter learns about life and love, and the reader gains a great deal of knowledge, quite painlessly, about the privations of the 17th century.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 386||Date: February 2012|
|External links: Author's website|
Winner of the Romantic Novelists Association Award 2013: The Historical Romantic Novel
Susannah is an intelligent young woman in her twenties who assists her father in his pharmacy. But the date is 1665 so he's actually called an apothecary, creating herbal remedies from scratch; moreoever this is an era when women did not, generally, do work of this kind. However, London is in the grip of the bubonic plague. So apothecaries must work overtime to produce nosegays - supposedly to ward off evil humours - as well as plague preventative medicine, herbs for poultices, and so on.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect with this novel, set in a period I knew little about beyond a few facts from my school days. My taste in historical fiction tends towards Regency days, dealing with the privileged upper classes. But I was captivated from the start by this superb debut novel. It took me to the horrors of 17th century England, yet without becoming gratuitously unpleasant. The writer has somehow succeeded in finding a good balance; I could almost see the red crosses painted on doors, the carts taking plague victims to the pits, the watchmen guarding the quarantined houses. I could feel for the families that had tragically lost loved ones, too. And yet potentially gory details about the progress of the illness itself were painted sensitively and lightly.
The plot contains a love story with jealousies, betrayals, suspicions and an eventual (if somewhat predictable) satisfactory resolution. But it's quite low-key, and the novel is so much more than a romance. I expected to learn more about the plague; I did not expect to learn so much about the dangers of childbirth. Nor did I expect to be confronted with the horrific racism that was rife in the era, when slavery was still accepted and even encouraged in some circles. Susannah herself, a broad-minded and caring person, is surprised to learn that African children were capable of learning to read. One of the most moving parts of the story is a scene when she and the slave Phoebe are forced to be quarantined together.
Despite the complex nature of the plot and related issues, and the realistic historical setting, the language is not difficult. Perhaps wisely, the author has not attempted 17th century speech or slang. There were places where I wanted the story to move a little faster, but that was probably because I was reading just a chapter or two each evening. When I skimmed a little, I found myself going back to read what I had missed. Eventually, eager to find out what would happen, I spent a couple of hours reading to the end. I found myself transported back to the days of the plague, wondering (from my 21st century perspective) whether they would work out that the illness was caused by flea bites, and when the Great Fire of London would start.
I'm delighted to learn that a sequel will be published later in 2012, and look forward to reading it.
Many thanks to the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag!
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