I read The Apothecary by Maile Meloy after a curious review in The New York Times. Right from the first chapter Meloy’s clear voice and light style had me willing to go anywhere with her, although I didn’t expect the story to go quite so many places. This is a quick-paced, adventurous children’s book that’ll make young readers think.
Our hero is a girl named Janie who lives in 1950s Los Angeles. Janie’s family finds itself under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam because her parents work in film so of course they’re communists. The story gets going once they abruptly relocate to London. Janie meets Ben Burrows, boy crush extraordinaire, on her first day of school when he refuses to hide under the table during a bomb drill. I always wondered if anybody actually believed that a desk could save them from a nuclear bomb.
Ben’s father is an apothecary, which in Ben’s eyes means he sells candy and medicine. His father expects him to enter in the family trade, but Ben wants to live the more adventurous life of a secret agent. He gets Janie to practice spying with him in the park, and soon they’re running through the streets of London with a lot more to worry about than parents and crushes. The adventurous life Ben dreams about wafts up from right beneath his nose.
This is one children’s book where the stakes are enormous. The good guys have to win, but in a world where the police cannot be trusted, it seems like Ben and Janie are on their own. They forge a friendship that enables them to put their lives in each other’s hands, and once they let themselves believe in the magic-like possibilities of science, they soar.
Meloy is brilliant with teenage dialog. She also captures first love from the eyes of fourteen year olds living in a time of both extreme malice and courage. This could be an important book in a child’s life. It’s definitely going on the shelf of books to read to my nieces someday, joining Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and A Monster Calls. Of the three, this is the most fun AND uplifting, though it does have it’s dark parts.