Published: 4 August 2011
Genre: Historical Fiction
Susannah Leyton has grown up behind the counter of her father's apothecary shop, surrounded by the resinous scents of lavender, rosemary, liquorice and turpentine. More learned than any apprentice, she concocts soothing medicines and ointments with great skill.
Content with her life, Susannah is shocked when her widowed father announces his intentions to marry again, and later becomes caught in a battle of wills with her new step-mother. When she receives a proposal of marriage from handsome and charming merchant Henry Savage, she believes her prayers have been answered and resolves to be a good wife to him. But Henry is a complex and troubled man, haunted by his memories of growing up in Barbados. As the plague sweeps through the city, tragedy strikes, and the secrets of Henry's past begin to unfold.
The Apothecary’s Daughter is set in London in 1665, a year before the Great Fire, so there is a lot of history in this story and the author does a great job of bringing the era to life.
In the summer of 1665, the Black Death swept through London, claiming the lives of thousands of people, and forcing many to flee the city in fear. The shadow of the plague hangs ominously over most of this novel and affects Susannah’s life hugely as you might expect considering her father’s line of work but it takes a while before it hits home. As Susannah moves about the city, the effects of the plague is very evident from the deserted businesses to the barricaded homes where the plague has claimed a life.
It is clear the author has put a lot of time and effort into researching the period and it pays off handsomely as the descriptions of the infested streets are so vivid, you can practically smell the stench from the sewers as you read. The attention to detail in regard to the apothecary business and the use of herbs is also excellently done and the fact Susannah cannot practice in her own right, due to her gender, adds another dimension. For the most part, it was the historical detail that kept me reading this novel because I wasn’t as impressed by the characterisation which was sadly lacking in some respects.
At the age of twenty-six, Susannah Leyton is unmarried in a time where most women of her age would’ve been married for a decade or more, however Susannah feels she has a far more noble calling and she has been content to work alongside her father in the apothecary. Susannah’s father is unusual for the period in that he allows his daughter far more freedom and respect than her gender would normally allow but it backfires badly when Susannah’s father decides to marry again. Susannah’s comfortable place is suddenly undermined when she is informed by her stepmother that she must seek employment in another household or find herself a husband. Unfortunately for Susannah, she has just turned down a marriage proposal from Henry Savage, the cousin of a doctor who frequents the apothecary regularly. As a young child, Susannah watched her mother die in childbirth and this has always put her off the idea of marriage, knowing it would be her duty to bear children, however she has no desire to be a servant and is forced to reconsider Henry’s proposal.
Initially, Susannah and Henry seem well suited to each other but once they are married, it is evident that Henry has no real desire for her and Susannah’s fears of becoming pregnant seem unfounded at this point. However, women are fickle creatures, so I’m told, and a miffed Susannah tries everything to make her husband desire her to no avail and she is left alone while Henry is conducting his business elsewhere. I was actually convinced Henry was gay and had married Susannah as a cover, however we are given no explanations until Susannah discovers the extent of her husband’s deceit after his death. I really don’t think Betts did a good job of conveying Henry’s character and it takes a long time for the truth to unfold but by that time I was well beyond caring. The problem with Henry is the narrative is all from Susannah’s point of view and since she has no clue what is going on in Henry’s head, neither do we, and Betts doesn’t give us enough clues with his behaviour for us to make any suppositions. Henry’s death is also a major anti-climax as it happens “off camera” and Henry is really not in the book long enough for his mysterious life in Barbados to make any meaningful impact whatsoever.
The fact Susannah later falls in love with Henry’s cousin, William Ambrose, the doctor she has known for a long time, does not come as a huge surprise as it was signposted from the very first moment William appears in the novel. As you would expect, the road to true love is never a smooth one and there are lots of misunderstandings and disappointments along the way before Susannah and William can find happiness. I liked Susannah as a character but there were times when she aggravated me, putting herself in danger or disregarding the welfare of others because she refused to listen to reason and always thought she knew best. I know Susannah’s actions are plot devices to add drama, however it is frustrating because she is supposed to be intelligent and her actions are very questionable at times.
Betts also has a bad habit of signposting in her books, the aforementioned instant attraction to William being the prime example here, however she is far more guilty of it in the sequel, The Painter’s Apprentice, which I will be reviewing next.