Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Book Review Club - The Apothecary

The Apothecary
Maile Meloy
Young Adult

Something Cold War-ish must be in my reading water. I seem to be choosing books with a Cold War themes fairly regularly -- David Almond's The Fire-Eaters, which centers around the Cuban Missile Crisis, Cecil Castelucci's Rose Sees Red, which is set in the early 80s with the Cold War tension as a back drop to a friendship that develops between an American and a Russian immigrant, and now, The Apothecary. It's not the side effects of too much dystopian ya for dessert, I promise.

It was for dinner.

Nonetheless, if  you find yourself feasting on dystopian but are looking for a little diversity in your dark, The Apothecary serves it up fresh and fun. The story centers around Janie, a teen whose writer parents are marked as Communists during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s and thus forced to leave LA for London where they get jobs writing for the BBC. At her new school, Janie meets a boy, Benjamin, who wants to be a spy, a Russian boy whose father is, and a chemist-apothecary-physicist triangle trying to contain the effects of a nuclear bomb.

There are so many twists, James Bond-like chase scenes, an unexpected apothecarian surprises, replete with a serum that turns humans into birds and another that can make them invisible, as well as the threat of a nuclear bomb that does go off. It's all there in spades.

The biggest leap of faith I found strained in the novel were the serums. The book is so solidly set in the Cold War, that to expect a character, let alone the reader to buy into the fact that chemical compounds can do what alchemists believed they could do hundreds of years ago is tough. The author acknowledges this by having her character say that it would have been hard to believe her friend could turn into a bird if she hadn't actually seen it happen herself. Still, for me, it disrupted the fictional dream. I believed that chemstry and physics could come together to undo the destruction of a bomb, but to tie that right into the magicalness of herbs was a stretch.

Then again, I spent my teens in the Cold War era. I'm bomb scare scarred. Today's young audience will likely have far less trouble taking that leap. If the reader does, the book continues on in a fast-paced, no-holds-barred, edge-of-your-seat ride to the very end.

One other interesting note. The book is told from the perspective of the main character, Janie, albeit as an adult. I haven't run across too many POVs from this angle of late, and Meloy plays it lightly, allowing the adult only to surface at the very beginning and the end to lend the story an air of continuing mystery. It's well-balanced and a great example of how to use the adult POV to a writer's advantage.

For more great reads and winter distractions, sled on over to Barrie Summy's website. She's serving them up hot...and with marshmallows!


Beth Yarnall said...

Dystopians can get very dark. I'm glad there is at least one exception. Thanks for the review.

Sarah Laurence said...

Excellent analysis as always. The Cold War setting does sound interesting but the serum plot point works against the realism.

Ellen Booraem said...

Hmm. This sounds interesting, actually--I'm a big fan of alternate history. I'm taking your warning about the believability to heart, though.