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THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER by Mary Lawrence: Book Review

Life in the middle years of 16th-century England is vividly portrayed in The Alchemist’s Daughter.  The novel takes place in Southwark, a borough just across the river Thames from London, a poor, filthy, dangerous place for anyone, especially young women. 

Bianca Goddard is the daughter of an alchemist father and an herbalist mother.  She decides to use the skills she has learned from her mother to help people, and thus she has become a creator and purveyor of various medicines and pesticides.

Her friend Jolyon Carmichael comes to Bianca’s one room home/apothecary in Southwark to update her on her life.  Jolyon was formerly a muckraker, a woman who uses a rake to comb through piles of trash and manure in the hope of finding something valuable to use or sell.  She is doing this when she finds a gold ring, a piece of jewelry she believes has brought her luck and changed her life for the better.

While wearing the ring she catches the eye of Mrs. Beldam, proprietor of Barke House, formerly a house of ill repute but now a rooming house for young women.  Getting a job at Barke House as an errand girl and laundress has greatly improved Jolyon’s life and allowed her to meet the mysterious man who has become her beau, despite the objections of Mrs. Beldam.

While Jolyon is explaining this to Bianca, she also tells her that she has been feeling ill lately.  Bianca fixes Jolyon a tonic to soothe her stomach, but shortly after drinking the mixture Jolyon falls to the floor of the apothecary and dies.  Bianca immediately becomes the obvious suspect for not-too-bright Constable Patch, so she urgently needs to find out what actually killed her friend and how it was done.

Although The Alchemist’s Daughter is the first in a series, a great deal of backstory is given to explain Bianca’s history and how she became interested in creating herbal mixtures and opening her business of Medicinals and Physickes.   She has estranged herself from her parents, dismissing her father whom she views as having wasted his life trying to convert worthless metals into gold, pitying her mother for having to live with such a man.  As Bianca tells Jolyon, “At least what I do benefits the sick and ailing, so it has some purpose.”

Mary Lawrence has done an excellent job in bringing the reader to London during the period Henry VIII was king.  Bianca is a fascinating heroine, a woman centuries ahead of her time in her determination to pursue the path she wants to follow as opposed to, as Constable Patch puts it, living in a nunnery or becoming a wife.  She has a suitor who wants to marry her, but Bianca is afraid that marriage will put a stop to her work, and that is something she is unwilling to allow.

You can read more about Mary Lawrence at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.




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