I possess an uncertain memory. In some situations, I have astonishingly accurate, detailed recall, and in other situations I have no ability to recall a situation, conversation, book, etc. I suspect it comes down to focus: at work, I generally focus on the emails I receive and read, and it’s amazing what I can recall (and how quickly). Years after I emailed someone once, I’ll still remember the content of that email. My freaky brain latches onto codes, so a full decade after I worked for a telephone answering service, I still remember the switchboard line numbers for some of our clients. In my private life, I’m known for being flaky, ditzy, and generally forgetful. I forget to tell my husband about appointments I’ve made; I forget to call people back; I forget to respond to emails. I forget 80% of what I read. It’s astonishing that I can be known for my cleverness and exceptional memory in one area of my life and can be famous for my ditzy forgetfulness in all the others.
That’s why it’s funny that I read a book about a character with an inescapably good memory. And do you know what’s even funnier? I finished the book last Thursday (July 5) and started writing a blog post about it on Monday (July 9). In four days, I had managed to forget the main character’s name. (That’s not all that uncommon for me, and you might notice that a lot of the time when I’m talking about the characters of a romance novel, I just call them the hero and the heroine, usually because I can’t remember the character’s names. I guess I just don’t pay attention to names.)
I enjoyed this story, although I had an understandably difficult time relating to the main character (Lilly… I finally remembered her name this afternoon). Lilly has fantastic recall for anything she’s read or anything she’s experienced/witnessed. She remembers dialogue from conversations. She remembers all the apothecary recipes she’s ever learned. She longs to forget some things, but she doesn’t get her wish. Lilly also has a taste for adventure and an ability to attract a horde of suitors.
It is typical for a romance novel to have two main characters, but this book really doesn’t. It’s about Lilly, and there are a bunch of dudes twirling around her, trying to gain her favor, but none of them is treated as another main character. In a way, that’s one of the strengths of the book. Part of what drives the plot is the question of whom Lilly will choose (if anyone) at the end. But by the time I reached the end of the book, I felt sort of manipulated, as though Klassen had lured me into caring about several characters who ended up having little importance by dangling the carroty chance that there would be a turnaround or a reveal and Lilly would end up loving them. I felt that this story was a nearly-executed (very nearly… it almost made it) attempt to take a straightforward love story and make it more mysterious.
I suspect I’m being slightly unfair to the book because I could not relate to the main character. I know that taste in reading is completely subjective, and a character that draws me in and seems to speak to my soul will be completely off-putting to another person. I know that there is a lot to like about The Apothecary’s Daughter, but none of that likable stuff quite makes up for my not being able to connect to the main character (although I recognize that the disconnect is personal and has nothing to do with the book). I just happen to be a not-very-adventurous homebody with a poor memory, and stories about people who yearn for new locales and who have problems adjusting to the horror of not ever forgetting anything just don’t appeal to me.
Ready for a horrifically abrupt subject change? Here it is. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, but I have certainly read it at least once a year for the past fifteen years. I was in high school when the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle P&P movie came out (thank you BBC/A&E!), and I got a trifle obsessed and watched it daily for months on end. I can spot a snatched line from P&P at a hundred paces, so, naturally, a few lines from The Apothecary’s Daughter really stood out to me.
From page 100 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version
“I am ashamed to think of what I said then.”
Line from section 6 of the 1995 P&P miniseries
“I am ashamed to remember what I said then.”
From page 185 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version
“Mary Helen Mimpurse! That is the first nearly unkind thing I believe I’ve ever heard you say about anyone.”
From page 815 of Pride and Prejudice, Nook version (the freebie)
“That is the most unforgiving speech,” said Elizabeth, “that I ever heard you utter. Good girl! It would vex me, indeed, to see you again the dupe of Miss Bingley’s pretended regard.”
From page 314 of The Apothecary’s Daughter, Nook version
“I hope you will dance, especially should gentlemen be scarce and ladies be in want of a partner.”
From page 454 of Pride and Prejudice, Nook version (the freebie)
“He danced only four dances, though gentlemen were scarce; and, to my certain knowledge, more than one young lady was sitting down in want of a partner.”
I should really start bookmarking while I read, because there was a fourth eerily familiar line, but I just can’t remember it now, and I don’t feel like skimming through the entire book just to find it. I’m not trying to start some sort of odd Jane Austen plagiarism brigade (because a hell of a lot of authors would get rounded up in that one, including every author who ever wrote any JA fanfic), but I personally found these lines very jarring. I’d be trucking along in the story, and then all of a sudden there would be this random P&P reference… and, to me, it was as jarring as a random Rocky Horror Picture Show reference would have been. Every time I discovered a reference, I felt like I had gotten a joke that the author didn’t intend to make. I was this guy:
Bottom line… for all that I’ve complained about not connecting with the main character, being irritated by the P&P references, and feeling slightly manipulated by the author, I did enjoy this book. There are all of these lovely little bits of history woven into the story (history of medicine, apothecary’s lore, etc.), and these details added depth to the characters and explained a lot of the character’s motivations. I loved Klassen’s descriptions of life in that little village whose name I’ve forgotten. I loved the scene on Apothecary Row in London… This book has all these delightful little facets (and a mystery or two!) that make it well worth the read, even if you don’t particularly enjoy the main character.
My favorite thing about The Apothecary’s Daughter is that Lilly learns a very important lesson. She’s got this crazy-good memory, but that doesn’t always mean that she remembers things accurately. She remembers all the dialogue of every conversation, but that doesn’t mean that she always perfectly understood the context. Lilly has the opportunity to learn that things often aren’t what they seem, and that even the smartest of us can be surprised by things that were under our noses the whole time. Lilly also has a difficulty noticing changes in people over time because her habit is to rely on her memory, using information from the past to inform the present. The way Klassen allows Lilly to discover the other characters, those that she thought she knew so well (her father, Mary, Mrs. Mimpurse, Francis, etc.), is just lovely. For this reason alone, you should read The Apothecary’s Daughter, but, of course, there are many reasons to do so.