1791: Nella is the type of apothecary that you only hear about through word of mouth. For years, women have come to her to buy poisons to use on abusive husbands and other dangerous males. One day, twelve-year-old Eliza Fanning comes to Nella’s shop on an errand to collect a poison for her mistress’s husband. Nella expects to never see Eliza again after selling her a poison to add to her master’s morning egg, but through a series of circumstances, the young girl soon becomes part of her life.
Present day: Caroline’s trip to London was supposed to be a romantic tenth anniversary trip. Instead, she is traveling alone after learning of her husband’s infidelity. When she is invited to go mudlarking (wading in the Thames in search of historic treasure) by a history enthusiast, she finds a mysterious bottle. As she begins researching, she is fascinated by reports of a mysterious apothecary shop that once sold unusual concoctions to women.
Penner’s debut novel is deliciously readable. I loved Nella’s shop “buried deep behind a cupboard wall at the base of a twisted alleyway in the darkest depths of London” where no man would find it. I loved the late 18th century setting and watching Nella and Eliza’s relationship as it evolved from an act of hospitality (a cup of tea) to a mentor relationship.
As is generally the case with books with dual timelines, I preferred the historical story to the modern story. But Caroline is relatable. She’s a woman questioning the sacrifices she’s made in her life, with her husband’s betrayal leading her to pursue what she truly wants for the first time in years. For all of the women coming out of the pandemic, wondering if their own choices were the right ones, Caroline’s struggles will strike a chord.
The Lost Apothecary would be an excellent book club choice. And a fabulous book requires equally fabulous snacks. Here is my recommended menu:
- Deviled eggs in honor of Eliza’s famous poison breakfast
- Carrot and celery sticks with your favorite dip
- Cranberry brie bites (recipe below)
- Nutella dip with fruit, cookies, and pretzel rods (recipe below)
For a dry meeting:
Coffee and two types of tea. If you have teapots and strainers to make loose leaf tea, all the better. Working with loose leaf tea will make you feel like Nella, mixing up a concoction that could either heal or poison. (Please don’t poison your book club. Good book clubs are worth their weight in gold.)
For a book club that serves alcohol:
The most appropriate wine to pair with The Lost Apothecary would be a bold and flavorful red. My recommendation is Bodega Garzon Tannat. This award winning Uruguayan wine is easy to find in well stocked supermarkets and its deep purple color is as beautiful and mysterious as the book cover.
Cranberry Brie Bites:
I have only been to England once and that was in 2009. I had a list of foods to try there such as true English fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding. But curiously, one of the foods I associate with my trip is cranberry Brie sandwiches. It’s such a luxury cheese in the U.S., so I was surprised to learn that it was a common lunch item there, almost like PB&J is here, but I was perfectly happy to enjoy a Brie sandwich and black tea for lunch whenever I had the opportunity. Sandwiches can be a bit heavy for a book club choice, so bite size pastries might be more appropriate here.
If cranberry reminds you too much of the holidays, try blueberry preserves or the jam of your choice.
- 1 package crescent roll dough
- 8 oz Brie, cut into 24 small pieces
- ½ cup cranberry sauce
- ½ tablespoon Grand Marnier (optional, but recommended)
- Springs of rosemary for garnish (optional)
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Roll out crescent roll dough (I used parchment paper so I wouldn’t need to clean my counter before and after) and cut into 24 squares.
- Mix together ½ cup cranberry sauce and ½ tablespoon of Grand Marnier. If you don’t have Grand Marnier, it’s not essential, but the orange flavor complements the cranberries.
- Place one square into each cup of a mini muffin pan and top with a small piece of Brie and a small amount of the cranberry mixture.
- Bake for 15 minutes.
- Garnish with a rosemary sprig.
I don’t remember how I started making this dip, but I used to make this all the time when my stepdaughters were little. It’s easy and addictive and goes well with apple slices or fresh baguette slices. It is also an ideal frosting for brownies. For a book club setting, I would recommend a cute dessert board with assorted fruit, cookies, and pretzels.
- ½ cup peanut butter
- ½ cup Nutella
- ¼ cup chocolate chips
Microwave peanut butter in a small microwavable bowl for 30 seconds. Stir in Nutella and chocolate chips. Microwave for another 20 seconds. Stir and serve.