Ever dreamed of morphing into a bird to escape a tough situation, or becoming invisible and rescuing someone in distress, or banding with friends in an effort to stop nefarious activities? Three teens get to do all these things and more in Maile Meloy’s fast-paced drama The Apothecary, which is set in London, 1952.
In a “note to the reader,” Meloy sets the tone for the book. It’s a “magical time,” she writes, in 14-year-old Jane Scott’s life. It’s also a frightening time.
On the way home from school, Jane gets the feeling that she is being followed. Turning, she sees men in a dark sedan slowly following her.
Later in the evening, her world is turned upside down because her parents, both playwrights, admit to being put on a communist watch list. Readers are left wondering what the couple had done to be listed. Instead of defending themselves against the charge, with Jane in tow, the parents hotfoot it to London.
The Apothecary is Meloy’s first venture into writing fiction for young adults. From the start to the story's finale, readers can glean that she isn’t a novice. She has a keen sense of timing and drama. The story includes intrigue, kidnap, and murder.
As you might have guessed from the title, The Apothecary is about an apothecary named Marcus Burrows, but obviously. it entails more than a story about a “pill-counter.” Marcus, a member of the Society of Apothecaries, is the guardian of an important book, Pharmacopoeia. Marcus also practices the art of alchemy; the Pharmacopoeia’s pages are filled with almost magical sorts of scripts --“transformative elixirs,” which can transform humans into animals or reduce them to salt, or potions that can render someone mute or make them tell the truth.
After moving to London, Jane’s enrolled at St. Beden, a private school, where she meets Benjamin, Marcus’s son. They quickly strike up a friendship. During a violent break-in at the pharmacy, Marcus entrust Benjamin and Jane with the Pharmacopoeia, before he disappears.
Jane, Benjamin, and another friend named Pip -- clever, quick, and full of himself, like his namesake from Great Expectations -- have to outwit ruthless killers to find Benjamin’s father and stop them from unleashing their weapon on America.
From secret gardens to heroes and villains, the book works on a lot of levels. Meloy’s writing is excellent and her storyline exciting. However, I found the book a little too sympathetic to the idea of communism. For instance, explaining the concept of communism to Jane, her father says, “[The idea] is that people should share resources, and own everything communally, so there aren’t wildly rich people who have everything and desperately poor people who have nothing. That’s the idea. It’s just hard to get it to work.”
Meloy should have had Davis say, “It’s impossible to get it to work.” That’s because communism doesn’t work.
Communism is the political expression of a faulty worldview, but it has gained momentum in the West. Since it (and other -isms like Marxism and socialism) are touted by some as the solution to mankind’s problems, it’s imperative that young adults wrestle with these ideas. Therefore, along with reading The Apothecary, I’d suggest reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 speech A World Split Apart, and Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. These men, who suffered under communism, faithfully attest to the problems with it.
Chambers and Solzhenitsyn identify the communist vision as “Man without God.” Simply put, Man makes himself the measure of all things. But man without God has wrought untold horror upon his fellow man, from the former Soviet Union to North Korea, Cuba, China, and other countries today. The relentless and merciless crushing of the human spirit in these countries is well documented. Tragically, Meloy and many others have failed to take notice.
I recommend The Apothecary as an exciting and attention-grabbing book. But as ever, reading is an active act because the reader is inside the mind of the writer. So always ask your teen about the books he or she is reading. And remind them that some ideas, however charitable they sound, are really harmful to humans.
Image copyright G. P. Putnam's Sons. Review copy borrowed from the library.
Kim Moreland manages the Colson Center Library, is a research associate for BreakPoint, and writes feature articles and blog posts for BreakPoint.
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