Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy















10. The Apothecary
by Maile Meloy
illustrated by Ian Schoenherr
middle grade fiction, 2011
finished 2/29/12


It is rare that I read a book which takes me back to the days of childhood when I was completely absorbed in a story. The Apothecary gave me that very feeling.

The book begins in Hollywood, California in 1952. Fourteen year old Janie is walking home from school when she realizes that she is being followed by two men in a dark car. After she tells her parents who are televison show writers,
We walked that night to Musso and Frank's, which was my favorite restaurant, but it didn't feel like a treat. My parents tried to pretend everything was fine, but we took back alleys, and they watched the corners at every street. …
"So who are those men in the car?" I asked.
My mother sighed. "They're U.S. marshals," she said. "From Washington. The government."
That didn't make any sense. "What do they want?"
Addendum March 17: This restaurant was just mentioned on Roberta's blog! It is still going and has a website.

After telling their daughter that they are going to move to London, Janie asks, 'What did you do?' Her father says, 'nothing,' and goes on to tell her about a childhood acquaintance.
"I don't know if you remember Katie Lardner."
"The Lardners moved to Mexico, because her father became a target. It became impossible for him to work here."
Here Maile Meloy is including a real person. Ring Lardner, Jr. went to jail, and then moved to Mexico, and later England where he worked on The Adventures of Robin Hood, just as Janie's parents do.
You may learn more about this period in Hollywood here.

Lardner is on the far right.


Janie says that they moved because her father was a Communist, and then she asks her parents if they are. Mr. Scott answers:
"We believe in the Constitution, Janie," he said. "And we've been put on a list of people they're watching. That's why they're watching you, when it has nothing to do with you. And I will not have them following my child."
He explains that they will be called to testify, and though they 'could answer for themselves,' they know they will be asked to testify about their friends, 'and we can't do that.'
"We've heard they'll confiscate passports soon so people can't leave the country. So we have to go right away."
They have a job lined up in London working on a television show about Robin Hood.

And thus, Janie's life changes completely. She hates to leave her sunny home, her friends, her life. When they land in England, they find much the same situation as readers of the book 84, Charing Cross Road learned about. 1952 London is light years away from the United States. They move into a small apartment with a broken gas water heater in a kitchen 'no bigger than a closet.' The landlady was 'not going to let some spoiled Americans fail to appreciate their good fortune.'
"You're lucky to get this place you know. … People are queuing up for a flat like this, with its own lavatory, and separate bedrooms, and a working telephone line."
There are ration cards, and many foods, such as eggs are hard to come by. Chocolate bars have been scarce 'since the war.' And the streets are still 'bomb-scarred and desolate, seven years after the war's end.'

When they go to the neighborhood apothecary for hot water bottles, the first unusual occurence happens. Her father jokes about needing something to cure Janie's homesickness, and the apothecary takes two jars from the shelf and measures the ingredients, aspen and honeysuckle, into a small container. He tells Mr. Scott to add some water, and that they will not hurt her. He says they might help or they might not, because people have 'different constitutions.'
Note: apothecary is both the name of what we would now call a pharmacy, and the pharmacist.

At her new school, she meets four people who become important in her life: her Latin teacher, Mr. Denby, a war hero who was a prisoner of war in Germany for two years; a wealthy, beautiful girl, Sarah Pennington who thinks Mr. Denby is 'dreamy;' a boy, Sergei Shiskin, whose father works for the Soviet embassy; and most importantly, Benjamin Burrows, whose father happens to be the apothecary.

The adventures begin almost immediately when she and Benjamin go to the park and see Sergei's father apparently passing secret messages, and are shocked to see Benjamin's father picking up one of them. When the apothecary tears it up, they recover it from the trash.



Well, can you imagine how afraid, and yet excited, you would be in this situation if you were Janie's age?

And there I shall stop. I've set up the story, and from this point it becomes absolutely thrilling. Murder, herbal potions (to enable one to fly, and become invisible!), really bad guys, the atomic bomb - all these become part of the perils and excitements that Janie and Benjamin experience. Their sleuthing takes them to the Chelsea Physic Garden. I was happy to see a couple videos at the site, and a virtual tour which really brings The Apothecary to life.

The book contains one of my favorite devices. A 'note to the reader' written by Janie, now Jane, in 2011 sets up the tale. She talks about her memories of that year.
People describe their childhoods as magical, but mine - it really was.
As is this whole book. Magical and believable at the same time. A truly wonderful reading experience which is enhanced by the illustrations by Ian Schoenherr.



And, if my book report hasn't convinced you to read The Apothecary, surely this will!

38 comments:

  1. The other day I caught a clip of Ann Patchett recommending this book very enthusiastically, so that's an addition to the wish list, then!

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  2. Perfect timing! I saw this one on the library shelf last week and picked it up - but wasn't sure when I would get to it. I'll make it next on my list. Thank you for sharing!

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  3. First, I love spring and your new springtime header.
    Second, I loved this book when I read it. I thought that Maile Meloy did a wonderful job with her subject matter. I am glad you liked it, too.
    Third, thanks for posting the trailer. I didn't see it when I reviewed this book and I think it is a great trailer.

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    1. Thanks. It's a little blurry but I couldn't get a perfectly clear view of our lettuce seedlings.
      I just went over and read your fantastic review. Sorry I missed it when you first wrote it.
      Yeah, that trailer is wonderful.

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  4. It sounds enchanting, and te cover and illustrations look fabulous.

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    1. It'll make you feel like a kid again!

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  6. I've put it on my library list too!

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    1. It is so great! Did you know the author is the sister of Colin Meloy of The Decemberists? He has also written a book I have on my shelf, Wildwood.

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  7. I'm hooked! off to see if the library has it! I'm loving My Aunt Flora

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    1. I'm so pleased! I put up a quote from it on the blog (did I tell you?):

      My most cherished ambition is to live in one house with my husband and children and dogs and never leave until I die.

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  8. It's difficult to overstate how hard life was in England after WWII. I made my first visit there in 1968 -- 23 yrs. after the end of the war -- and when we took the train into London, there were still large sections of the East End which were rubble -- the houses and buildings had been bombed during the Blitz, and there'd been no money or time to clear out the debris and rebuild. To me, coming from the USA, WWII was history, but my inlaws were still living with the effects every single day.

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    1. Wow! That is really amazing and surprising to me.

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  9. If I can find it as an ebook, I think I shall have it for my Kindle! Not that long ago, I read quite a lot about that particular period in Hollywood, in the biography about Marilyn Monroe.
    It still happens to me often, to be as absorbed in a good story as I was when I was a child.

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    1. This one will be a bit different! :<)

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  10. You've certainly convinced me! I was determined not to order any books this month, but I may have to cave. It is going on my wishlist right now!

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    1. It is so worth owning! A beautiful book in words and pictures.

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  11. Oh, I am so going to read this one, Nan. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. And I love the cover too, it was one of my choices for a great cover last year. Just gorgeous.

    But then I forgot about the book and now you've just reminded me of it.
    I'll bet there's a nice trade paperback too. If not, the library will suffice.

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    1. I remember you liking the cover. The illustrations are quite wonderful. Such a delightful book.

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  12. Erika W.
    Uh oh--you have de-railed my morning; Your blog is one of a handful I read consistently and as I had nothing going on my Kindle I downloaded this. 50 minutes later I have had to tear myself away to start a batch of bread. This is really an engrossing book--for children or adults both. Thank you for describing it so well.

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    1. Your comment made my day. Thank you! So happy you are enjoying it. Are the illustrations on the Kindle?

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  13. Just in time for my Spring book order submission for the library! Looks like a winner, Nan.

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  14. I just spent the last 15 minutes perusing the website for Musso and Frank's! What a wonderful bit of Hollywood history! Did you read the "Did You Know" section in their history category? "Musso's is mentioned in over 500 books and articles ranging from food reviews to novels to biographies." And, "The premier party for season one of Mad Men was held at Musso's." I would love to visit this restaurant and order the original Fettucini Alfredo (wonderful story about this listed under the pasta menu). Amazing how many of the waitstaff are still working there after all these years. Thank you for bringing this restaurant to my attention, Nan. I know Rod will love to read about it. Growing up in L.A., he probably already knows all about it.

    Regarding the book, I'm sold! I'll seek it out at work on Tuesday. Thanks for the wonderful review, Nan.

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    1. That pleases me so very much! Didn't know he grew up there. After reading Roberta's piece, I rented Double Indemnity. Ever seen it? Perfect movie.

      I hope it is selling well in your store!

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  15. Sounds a good book - I've been to Chelsea Physic Garden a couple of times, it's small but lovely and fascinating.

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    1. How I'd love to go. I was quite amazed in watching the video to hear and see the traffic. It really is right in the midst of things.
      I think you would really love this book.

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  16. It sounds fascinating, Nan, I must look out for it. Interesting to hear that the state of postwar comes as a surprise, I was 2 when the war ended so rationing and hardship were second nature to me - I'm still thrifty probably as a result of early conditioning! Bomb sites were left derelict for many years and I remember the ruins of a large hotel, still with ragged red velvet curtains at the window - rebuilt when I was about 10, which is when rationing finally ended. But I'm pretty certain the word Apothecary is poet's licence - that's an archaic term and certainly not into the 20th century. We call them chemists'shops.

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    1. Thank you for telling me. It does come as a surprise to Americans not familiar with the post-war situation. I really did first learn of it through Hanff's book.

      Mr. Burrows is more than a pharmacist or chemist. He is an herbalist, and the holder of an ancient pharmacopoeia. So that's probably why the old word was used.

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  17. I love the sound of this one and the cover appeals to me as well --double bonus.

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  18. What an interesting post/review. I'm intrigued and will look out for this book. I love that it's interspersed with history and real places.
    Ann

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    1. Thank you. It's really a wonderful, wonderful book.

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