Review: The Apothecary

Review: The ApothecaryThe Apothecary by Maile Meloy
Series: The Apothecary #1
Published by Putnam Juvenile on October 4, 2011
Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, Historical, Mystery
Pages: 362
Format: Hardcover

It’s 1952 and the Scott family has just moved from Los Angeles to London. Here, fourteen-year-old Janie meets a mysterious apothecary and his son, Benjamin Burrows—a fascinating boy who’s not afraid to stand up to authority and dreams of becoming a spy. When Benjamin’s father is kidnapped, Janie and Benjamin must uncover the secrets of the apothecary’s sacred book, the Pharmacopoeia, in order to find him, all while keeping it out of the hands of their enemies—Russian spies in possession of nuclear weapons. Discovering and testing potions they never believed could exist, Janie and Benjamin embark on a dangerous race to save the apothecary and prevent impending disaster.

First Sentence: “I was seven and living in Los Angeles when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, and my first vivid memories are of how happy and excited everyone was.”

I’d noticed The Apothecary, but it wasn’t particularly on my radar. However, I certainly wasn’t going to pass it up when I saw Meloy’s short signing line just where I happened to be at BEA. I’m glad I did pick up a copy. The Apothecary is a thoroughly fun and silly middle grade novel, and even has some history lessons.

I straight up love history, so I was all about the Cold War aspects of the story. Spying and atomic bomb testing? Sign me up. This definitely doesn’t read like a text book, though, so don’t worry about that. If anything, The Apothecary is more designed to educate younger readers on the horrors of atomic warfare without actually scaring the pants off of them. I definitely thought it was awesome that Janie and her parents had to move at the beginning because of the Red Scare moving through the entertainment industry.

What I liked best about The Apothecary definitely also formed a weakness in the story, ironically enough. I loved the scenes surrounding the use of the different alchemical recipes. The very best scenes of the book to me deal with the quintessential awkwardness of being 14, and the magic/science definitely highlights that. For example, one of my very favorite scenes occurs when Benjamin and Janie test out a truth serum on one another to make sure it works. Of course, they dare each other to say who they fancy. While that may not be surprising, it’s totally what would happen and the scene just resounds with teenage discomfort.

However, I felt like the potions and powders were a bit too…easy, I guess. Have a problem? The Pharmacopoeia (Alchemical book) has something for it! What was perhaps more frustrating was that, except for one particular spell (or whatever you want to call it), the potions and stuff were already ready made. It just seemed kind of lame. I wanted the kids to do more, to have to work more to get going. It felt like most of the book was just the kids discovering new awesome thing after new awesome thing. It just felt too convenient to me.

While I did really like Meloy’s writing, I felt like her characterization needed work. I really liked most of the characters actually, but I never felt especially connected to Janie, which is unfortunate, since you see from her perspective. I guess I just had trouble getting a handle on who she was, other than a brave girl who likes adventures. I just don’t feel like I know anything about her interests. Pip totally stole the show. He is such a perfect rapscallion!

All told, I definitely thought this was a wonderful read. It’s worth perusing especially to see the gorgeous illustrations by Schoenherr. He did a marvelous job, and I always anticipated new chapters because I knew I’d get to see a new picture!

Favorite Quote:

“It’s safe to say I was not graceful about the move to London. I was not witty, patient, adaptable Jane Austen. And if I was anything like Katharine Hepburn, it was in the scenes where she’s being a giant pest.”

11 responses to “Review: The Apothecary”

  1. Lilian says:

    Thank you for your review!
    I kept seeing this book at my local library because the Middle-Grade new arrivals are right next to the check-out desk and my eyes would always linger over this book because of it’s title (I guess because it reminded me of The Alchemist?).
    Then I saw it on your Currently-Reading goodreads widget and on PublishersWeekly list of Must-reads of 2011. I was planning to pick it up during my next stop at the library…but now I think I have to consider.
    Especially since I am not a fan of MG, the charactetrs always seem too naive, or too flat, or the situations too convenient to even be remotely believable.

    Though I have a predilection for magical powders/potions–which explains my love for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Mrs. Piggle-wiggle, and even A Discovery of Witches (minus the romance, and Diana’s uselessness).

    I smiled when I saw “rapscallion,” that word always sounds hilarious in my mouth (or maybe I am just crazy.)

    Lilian @ A Novel Toybox

    • Colin Meloy’s sister. I’ve been meaning to read this one. Thanks for the review!

    • Christina says:

      I like MG, but I definitely agree with you about the problems that it often has. That’s why I typically only read the very best ones. I would recommend picking it up at the library and reading a couple of chapters. It’s worth it to see the artwork (lovely!) and you might find yourself liking it. If you’re having trouble, just stop!

      I love the word rapscallion!

      Yup! I still need to read Colin’s book!

    • Lilian says:

      I stopped by the library today and didn’t see it…so it must be a sign! Or maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough, whatever.

      The thing with me is I don’t stop, no matter how horrible…the only thing that gets me to stop is if I have to return the book to the library. I end up being like “IT WILL GET BETTER! IT WILL GET BETTER!” and I feel like I’ve wasted time reading the first half and not have a review to write (just because I don’t agree with DNF reviews.) And unfinished books nag at me, moaning, “finnniiissshhh meeee…”. So I suck it up and finish it, and then rant out my anger by hurling books out the window.

    • Christina says:

      Haha, oh well. Maybe it is. This wasn’t awful. It was just fun and silly. I don’t think you would fail it, but I don’t really know.

      I’m like that too. I’m really quick to DNF- from 1 to 50 pages, because if I get any further than that, I feel like I wasted my time if I don’t finish and review.

      I don’t do DNF reviews either. I’m okay with other people doing them, but I personally don’t feel like I should review books I haven’t finished. They often take a turn at the end or something. Oh, AND, a lot of times, if I do DNF something a good portion of the way through because I just can’t take it anymore, I end up reading it later and have to start over from the beginning again because I don’t remember. DOUBLE WASTE OF TIME!

  2. Bekka says:

    I checked this out from the library a few weeks ago, but I almost never get to my library books anymore before they have to go back. It’s interesting, what you said about the magic being too easy – I had the same sort of feeling when I read Harry Potter. Weird. Of course, in the later books that wasn’t always the case. It’s just strange to me how easily magic fixes things in books that have magic in them. Poof – problem disappears.

    • Christina says:

      Yeah, that’s definitely true. I mean, I love that about magic, but it’s just better when they at least have to work for it by learning a spell or something. In this one, they brewed up one thing, but otherwise were just given magic vials of pre-made stuff. All they had to do was use it at the right time.

    • Anya says:

      I hated that in The Magnolia League. (Also, the characters. But still.)

    • Christina says:

      I haven’t read that one. The cover’s pretty, but I’m not a huge fan of southern fiction, so I hadn’t been sure if it’s my thing. Sounds like a no.

  3. I have a copy of The Apothecary and am looking forward to it, shallowly because of the cover, I just love birds on covers. But also I love the Cold War too. I’m sorry this wasn’t a perfect read for you, but yay illustrations? <3

    • Christina says:

      Lol. Well, expecting every read to be perfect would be totally unfair of me. I still really enjoyed reading it despite the issues. I actually even loaned it to a friend because I think she’ll enjoy it as a nice fluffy read post a bunch of depressing books.

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