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The Pharmacist's Wife
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A captivating book.... It is a story that is both whimsical and disturbing Author: Review for THE LOOKING GLASS HOUSE Source: Lady
Tait's engaging novel... is sensuous and lyrical Author: Review for THE LOOKING GLASS HOUSE Source: Sunday Telegraph
Moving and original Author: Kate Saunders, Review for THE LOOKING GLASS HOUSE Source: The Times
A dark and thrilling tale of Victorian addiction, vengeance and self-discovery, perfect for fans of Sarah Waters, Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist and Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent.See all Product description
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I was really excited to receive a review copy of The Pharmacist’s Wife that I read it straight away. Certain words on the blurb caught my eye; Victorian Edinburgh; pharmacy; heroin and addiction. Anything to do with Victorian Medicine and I am all over it, so to say my curiosity was piqued with a story about Victorian Pharmaceuticals set in Edinburgh, a city less than an hour away from my Glasgow home, is quite an understatement.
Having given up hopes of her childhood sweetheart, Gabriel, ever returning to her, Rebecca Palmer makes a more pragmatic life choice in her marriage to the handsome pharmacist, Alexander. She envisages her life as the pharmacist’s wife to be content and comfortable, however her dreams of married life are shattered when Alexander reveals himself to be controlling and manipulative with some strange sexual desires. When Rebecca begins to show dissent towards her husband he sees this as the perfect opportunity for experiment and decides to treat her for “hysteria” with the new wonder drug he and his partner Mr Babcock have been working one, heroin. Given to Rebecca as a salt solution to drink, Alexander surreptitiously makes notes on the seemingly positive effects the heroin has on Rebecca’s mood.
Rebecca initially enjoys the feeling heroin gives her, it alleviates her anxieties, provokes pleasant sleepy dreaminess, and a warm, fuzzy feeling of calm and contentment. It is all the more of benefit to Alexander to have Rebecca in this state, the more docile and pliable she is, the easier it is for him to carry on his secret life of debauchery. However these initial feelings do not last as the effects of the salts don’t seem to last as long and Rebecca begins to need a higher dosage to achieve that same dreamy state. When sickness seems to coincide with the times she has not had her daily dose of salts it becomes apparent that the heroin has sunk its claws deeply into Rebecca and she is now dependant on it. Although isolated, Rebecca is incredibly smart and determined and she musters up all of her inner strength to beat her addiction and achieve redemption and retribution.
The book covers a range of themes such as addiction, poverty, feminism and the stark inequality between men and women at that time. Sexual, economic, legal and psychological power all rested in the hands of men. At a time when even a normal bodily function such as menstruation is regarded a disease and it was believed that a women’s temperament could not bear as much as men.
Vanessa Tait has clearly well researched this era and paints an iconic picture of Edinburgh in the late 19th century; social standing, money, social engagements, nice clothes and servants. On the flip side of that we see brothels, disease, opium dens, prostitutes and poverty, and on occasion these two sides overlap each other. Her exquisite writing brings the Victorian era alive from the pages, and I could clearly imagine the horrific sights and smells from the underbelly of Edinburgh.
The characterisation is perfection, each individual multi-dimensional and varied. A lot of characters are not as they first seem, and I changed my opinions on them multiple times as another layer of their personality was peeled back to reveal something even more surprising. Some got under my skin so much that I was infuriated, and Rebecca understandably earned a place my heart.
This engaging, entertaining and inspiring story is a must read for fans of Historical Fiction.
North Bridge, the road linking Old to New, is the location Rebecca Palmer’s husband Alexander has chosen for his new pharmacy, the Grand Opening of which is celebrated with a brass band and a performing monkey. These are exciting times for Rebecca who, as a spinster of twenty-eight, had given up hope of ever marrying anyone, let alone such a clever and distinguished man as Alexander. Almost as soon as they move into their new home, however, Rebecca is forced to question whether her husband really is the man he appears to be. She suspects him of having an affair with Evangeline, a woman from the Old Town, and when she finds a ladies’ red shoe on his desk she’s sure her suspicions have been confirmed.
Alexander doesn’t like a wife who asks questions or has too many ideas of her own and, with this in mind, he has been developing a new medicine in his laboratory above the pharmacy – a medicine which he hopes can be used to control women and which he persuades Rebecca to try by telling her it will make her happy and content. Soon Rebecca is dependent on her medicine, taking it more and more often and relying on her husband to provide it for her. It is, of course, heroin – and it seems that Rebecca is not the only woman on whom Alexander has been testing his new invention…
This is certainly a dark novel but I didn’t find it a particularly thrilling one and it wasn’t until near the end that I started to feel gripped by the story. I suppose I was expecting more from the plot; there are lots of good ideas and plenty of interesting topics are touched on, but it’s only when (without wanting to spoil too much) things begin to go less smoothly for Alexander that it becomes really compelling, in my opinion. What this book does do, very well, is explore the inequalities between men and women in 19th century society. Although Alexander is not a real person and his discovery of heroin is fictitious, he uses the drug to keep his wife quiet and submissive and to take away whatever small amount of independence and freedom she may have had. Rebecca’s situation is oppressive and frightening and as her addiction to the drug deepens it becomes difficult to see how she is going to break out of the cycle in which she has found herself.
I liked Rebecca as a character and was pleased to see that she does develop as a person as the novel progresses, but I thought the villains, Alexander and his friend Mr Badcock, were too obviously ‘villainous’ and could have been given more depth. As well as the drugs, it seems that there’s no type of cruelty or depravity of which they’re not capable! Thankfully, there are two decent male characters to balance things out slightly – Lionel, the apprentice who helps Alexander in the pharmacy, and Gabriel, Rebecca’s first love.
The Pharmacist’s Wife is an interesting novel and, as I’ve said, a very dark one. I couldn’t love it, but I would be happy to read other books by Vanessa Tait.
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