Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

In 1952, Janie's family has moved to London from Los Angeles so her TV writer parents won't have to testify against their friends at the House Un-American Activities.  Janie is less than happy to go from sunny Los Angeles to dreary London.  She becomes friends with a boy from school, Benjamin and when Benjamin's father, an apothecary, is kidnapped, they are left in charge of protecting the Pharmacopoeia and keeping it away from the Russian spies who are after it.

Although there was certainly a fantasy element to this book, it also clearly showed how much London was affected by WWII.  Janie's experience with the war, which ended when she was 7, was that there wasn't real butter and they couldn't drive everywhere.  But since the war had been going on almost her whole life, she didn't miss those things.  Moving to London was a shocking contrast.  Eight years later, the people of London were still heavily affected by the events.  There was the physical evidence of the war - bombed out buildings - along with fellow schoolmates who had family members die, and many things, like eggs, still couldn't be easy gotten.  While in the United States the time after WWII was a kind of golden age, in London the end of the war hadn't fixed anything.

We also get to learn about the Cold War.  Janie's parents are involved in Hollywood and ran rather than have to testify against friends who had been accused of Communist activities.  Janie talks about having to hide under her desk at school to practice if a nuclear bomb.  She actually mentions a safety film "Duck and Cover" where a turtle named Bert shows everyone how to hide.  I remember being shown this film in 7th grade, and we all thought it was totally ridiculous.  Benjamin thinks it's ridiculous too, and informs everyone that hiding under their desk won't protect them from a regular bomb, much less a nuclear explosion.  We later find out that his mother was killed during an air raid.

So I thought the historical fiction aspect, which was not the main focus of the story but just there, was really great.

It turns out that the apothecary is no regular apothecary.  Rather he is part of a society of alchemists, and no, alchemists were not just trying to make gold.  The Pharmacopoeia contains formulas that allow people to turn into birds, become invisible, and force people to tell the truth.  Benjamin's father, and others, has been working for years to create something that would not only contain but also reverse a nuclear explosion.  The Russians, of course, don't want this to happen.  Janie and Benjamin use the Pharmacopoeia to try and rescue Benjamin's father and make sure he is able to get to the site where the Russians are planning on testing a nuclear bomb, ten times the power of the ones that were dropped on Japan.

There's danger, spies, traitors, magic and yes, even a little bit of romance.  Also, Janie's parents are awesome and it's nice to see parents in a YA or middle-grade book that are actually involved in their kid's life.  Speaking of which, this book as at kind of an in-between level where middle grade students would love it, but I think high school students would enjoy it too.

The Apothecary comes out October 4.


  1. I have been wanting to read this book for awhile. My wait is almost over and anticipation has grown thank to your review.


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