As Leonardo Di Capario and Clint Eastwood immortalize J. Edgar Hoover in a new biopic, Maile Meloy finds inspiration in the fictional lives of a Hollywood family on Hoover’s “list” who avoid testifying against their friends by relocating to London in The Apothecary. At a time when children were taught to duck and cover under their desks as protection from a bomb, and everyone was suspected to be a Russian spy, Meloy neatly connects history to fantasy in a clever mystery.
Susan is a Nancy Drew-like detective, homesick for America and feeling more than the usual angst about being in a new school. The local apothecary offers her a powder to help her adjust to her new surroundings, but when he is kidnapped by Germans, she finds herself embroiled in a spy thriller with his son, Benjamin, to save the local apothecary and possibly the world from nuclear disaster. Their immediate mission is to protect the Pharmacopeio, the apothecary’s book of mysterious formula, using plants to evoke extraordinary phenomena.
Of course, their curiosity has them applying the book’s strange recipes almost immediately. They create elixirs that turn them temporarily into birds to escape their pursuers or make them invisible in a funny sequence of preteen angst. Ian Schoenherr’s black and white graphics, sprinkled throughout the narrative, generate an other-worldly aura, and Meloy adds characters to keep the action suspenseful and humorous: Pip, the handsome street-wise boy straight out of Dickens, who can pick locks and finesse adults as well as children; Mr. Danby, the Latin teacher/war hero, who may be playing both sides of the spy game; Shiskin, the bumbling Russian double-agent; Jin Lo, the young beautiful and smart Chinese chemist.
The Apothecary is fun to read; suspend your belief and enjoy a world of impossible solutions. And imagine, if you were able to turn into a bird to fly away for a while, what kind of bird would you be?
This is Meloy’s first novel for young readers, but her other books – for adults – include a short story collection – Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It and the novel Liars and Saints.