A mysterious apothecary. A magic book. A missing scientist. An impossible plan.
So begins the hook that first put this book on my radar. The Apothecary is about a Janie Scott, a typical 14-year-old girl living in Los Angeles with parents that work for Hollywood in 1952. After being followed home by federal agents one day, Janie’s parents decide that its time for the family to pick up their bags and move to London to further evade government suspicions. Once there, Janie befriends Benjamin Burrows, the son of the local apothecary, and soon the pair go on a wild adventure to look for Benjamin’s missing father, putting together the pieces of a puzzle that spans the globe.
There are a number of elements in this book that will be attractive to the young readers. I’d say the age span of this book would be for kids 12 and up. There are a number of historical references in this book, the vocabulary and plot are complex, but not overly so. Its well-balanced between action, historical accuracy, and teen romance. Janie is the perfect heroine. She’s not perfect, she’s flawed, she’s gutsy, she’s shy, but she’s willing to leave anything open to possibilities.
I love the name Benjamin Burrows. If that’s not a secret agent type of name, I don’t know what is. Benjamin and Janie befriend Pip during a stint in juvenile prison. Pip is the pick-pocketing kid from your typical Dicken’s novel. He’s clever, he’s quirky and he makes for a fun and humorous counterpart to Ben and Janie’s seriousness.
I love that this book is set during the Cold War of the 1950s. That’s an era that isn’t much written about in children’s historical novels. Meloy did a fantastic job creating a setting that is dark and eerie, in a world that is full of suspicions and paranoia.
There were a few elements that I found lacking, but I’m wondering if it’s because I read this book as an adult. I found the ending to be a little disappointing, particularly how things were left with Janie and her parents. I found that entire element to be unnecessary. I also felt that the bad guys were not evil enough. They just seemed so tame and reserved. The ultimate villain in any children’s book is Count Olaf, and author Lemony Snicket did set a rather high bar for adult cruelty in The Series of Unfortunate Events.
The Apothecary is Maile Meloy’s first novel for young readers, so I can only see her work for this age group improving. Her brother is Colin Meloy, author of Wildwood, which is also his first novel for young readers. I wonder how much the two collaborated and shared notes working on these two novels? I really enjoyed Wildwood, and had high hopes for The Apothecary.