I can be a very smug librarian sometimes. It can get me into trouble. Take my reaction to the cover of Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary, for instance. Here we have one of the lovelier illustrated book jackets to come out in recent years. Illustrator Ian Schoenherr really put his heart and soul into it. So what was my initial reaction? I picked it up, noticed the American robin on the cover paired with the image below of some buildings raising the British flag and sniffed, “That’s not an English robin.” I was feeling very pleased with myself because as The Secret Garden taught me, English robins and American robins are entirely different. It never really occurred to me that the fact that the robin on the cover was American wasn’t just on purpose but essential to the plot itself. Come to think of it, there were a lot of things about this book that struck me as surprising when I came across them. The blend of historical fiction and fantasy (or is it science fiction?) for example. The engaging characters, memorable details, and compelling writing. Oh it had a couple fits and starts along the way, don’t get me wrong, but if we’re looking to tip a hat to a book that dares to do something a little different than its contemporaries, The Apothecary is worth that tip.
You’d think that growing up in Hollywood, California, the last thing Janie Scott would be worried about would be the American government. Yet when the blacklist forces her family to move as far away as London, Janie finds herself navigating a whole new world. The year is 1959 and before she knows it Janie finds herself wrapped up in the troubles of a cute boy in her school named Benjamin. Turns out his father is an apothecary, and not just the run-of-the-mill kind either. Benjamin’s father is one of a long line of alchemists and the secrets he holds are of interest to some pretty shady characters. Now it’s up to Janie, Benjamin, and their friend Pip to aid the apothecary cause, even if it means heading straight for the heart of a nuclear explosion.
I think that it is safe to say that if a person were to pick this book up without any prior knowledge of the contents inside, they might very well believe this to be a book of straight historical fiction for approximately sixty-nine pages or so. They’ll be brought up to speed relatively quickly after that point, but part of what I liked about this title was that Meloy didn’t skimp on the historical details. She’s perfectly aware that if you’re going in for some serious world building, you need to get your facts straight. No surprise that when you get to the end Meloy credits books like David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain 1945-1951 with her research. Her attention to detail shows and rewards the reader with a book that doesn’t place the book in the past for romantic or twee reasons. Meloy had a purpose in mind when she chose 1952. One that she, in turn, shares with the rest of us.
Mind you, there is such a thing as taking it too far. Enter Pip, an escapee from a Dickens novel. Not literally of course (though that would have been forgivable) but in the figurative sense. Pip is your average and apparently obligatory street-smart kid con artist. The kind more at home running errands for Sherlock Holmes than existing in a world with television and atom bombs. You half expect him to break into cockney rhyming slang half the time, making him a fun if slightly unbelievable companion to our two heroes. I tried to figure out why Meloy thought Pip would be a necessary addition and I’m stumped. Certainly it’s more fun to follow three heroes in a book rather than just two. But Pip just seems so out of place every time he opens his mouth or picks a lock. It was a bit distracting.
Maile Meloy has, until now, primarily acted as an author of books for adults. In my experience, when an adult author makes the switchover to children’s lit, the results are often patronizing, dull, or patronizingly dull. It’s like authors for grown-ups see books for children as less deserving of decent writing than their adult brethren. So part of what I like so much about Ms. Meloy is that she seems to harbor a healthy respect for her readers. She makes unique choices with her book. For example, it’s interesting to note that in this story our heroes are hoping to contain the effects of a nuclear test rather than an actual bombing itself. Huh! I will say that there’s a bit of a Deus Ex Machina ending to this book that struck me as a tad silly but it’s not something that sank the title for me. All told, Meloy makes the right choices at the right times nine times out of ten.
The question of audience comes up with a book like this, partly because the publisher itself wasn’t entirely certain how to market this. Is this a book for children or teens? With its lovely illustrations and fantastical elements there’s definitely a middle grade kid feel at work. On the other hand it stars a 14-year-old who has a small romance and deals with everything from Cold War politics to McCarthyism. Personally, I think tweens and teens alike will get a kick out of this book. There’s no reason to limit it to one area or another.
I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to come up with a fantasy novel for kids or teens that’s set in a past that isn’t an alternate magical history like Kat, Incorrigible or Thirteenth Child. It’s rather rare and yet the idea is delightful. Cold War spying with magic. It practically sells itself! Maile Meloy takes this rather unique idea and rather than phoning the past in, does the necessary research, writes a compelling (not to say amusing) book, and the end result is a fantasy (or is it science fiction?) novel that can truly be called unique. It may have a funny little quirk here and there, but all told this is a strong piece of writing from a writer that I certainly hope we’ll see a lot more of. Original. Quirky. Fun.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Watch the book trailer for a kick.