“A dose of magic can save the world.” I didn’t write that, it’s the subtitle of the book. But it encapsulates the entire story in those eight little words better than I can in 500. My work here is done.
Which, of course, is total and utter crap. I love to talk about any book, even if someone else can say it more eloquently than I. So talk I will.
The Apothecary is fantasy and magic. Maile Meloy makes turning into a bird and running invisible (and naked) through post-war London completely believable. Of course smelling an herb which was picked at noon (solar, not the one we see on the clock), then ground and brewed into a tea will make you incapable of lying. And haven’t we all seen an invisible polymer net contain a nuclear explosion? Alchemy at its best.
It is the mid-1950s, and Janie and her television writer parents have fled the United States for England, under threat of interrogation for Communist ideals. London is a stark change for 14 year old Janie; used to the sunny beaches and excesses of California life, she has trouble adjusting to the still-rationed food and clothing of a London that bears the physical and psychological scars of WWII.
Meeting Benjamin helps. Janie notices the intelligent, engaging and authority-challenging would-be spy at her new school, and follows him home, just to learn more about him. He is the son of the local apothecary, who, it turns out, is more than that. Mr. Burrows is the latest in an ancient family of alchemists who work for kings and labour to save the world. He guards the Pharmacopoeia, the leather bound bible containing the research and notes of 700 years of family study and experimentation in the healing arts. It must be kept out of enemy hands.
What follows is a Cold War spy thriller with teenage protagonists whose mission it is to help save the world from nuclear destruction. Without their parents’ approval or knowledge, of course.
Meloy employs meticulous research and a great sense of humour throughout this completely captivating story. It has scientific interest and Cold War mystique, and while I cannot say whether or not the author’s use of alchemy is accurate, it is intriguing. There is great wonder and discovery in this novel, something that is lacking in so many stories.
Meloy’s character development is perfect. Janie is a modern girl in post-war times, and the relationship between her and Benjamin is real and believable. I laughed at the testing of the truth serum, and cringed on behalf of them both. Pip and Sarah were great additions, although they were a bit more predictable than I would have liked, given the rest of the novel. The resolution to the story is surprising and suspenseful.
Everyone, no matter his or her age, who wants to allow for the possibilities, should read this book.
The Apothecary is published by Puffin Books.