Friday, December 1, 2017

The Apothecary

The Apothecary
by Maile Meloy
Recommended Ages: 12+

It's 1952, and ninth-grader Janie Scott is enjoying the life of a Los Angeles teenager. So, she doesn't take it very well when her parents inform her they have to move to London, immediately, before the U.S. Marshals Service can confiscate their passports. The Red Scare is on, and the House Un-American Activities Committee is in session, and her television writer folks have been asked to name names of Communists working in Hollywood. They know they won't be able to give the answers the committee wants, because they believe in the First Amendment. So, to London they go, hired to write a BBC series about Robin Hood under assumed names, and dragging a resentful Janie with them.

Things soon start happening to take Janie's mind off being homesick. First, the local apothecary (sort of like a druggist) gives her a potion to cure homesickness. Then, the apothecary's son attracts her notice when he stages a protest at the school where she is suddenly expected to know Latin grammar and medieval English history. Benjamin notices her, too, and invites her on a chess date in Hyde Park. But chess turns out to be a cover for his self-directed training as a spy, and things start to get weird when the Soviet attaché they are spying on passes a message to Benjamin's father. In quick succession, the apothecary disappears, the kids find themselves in possession of a book of alchemy, they witness a murder, escape from police custody, befriend an East End boy named Pip, and be-enemy a traitor in their midst, who is conspiring with the Soviets. Plus, they find out that, with the right recipes, the impossible is possible - like, changing a person into a handful of salt crystals and back again, becoming invisible, and transforming into a bird.

Their adventure quickly escalates from "fun and magical" to "deadly serious," with a chase at sea, an arctic survival ordeal, a nuclear detonation, and a hostage dilemma. The combination of alchemy and espionage, tender young love and ruthless political intrigue, a teen-friendly depiction of school and family situations with a slice of post-World War II/early Cold War history, adds up to a uniquely textured story. Incredible feats of alchemy take place, defying the line between science and magic, all involving totally believable, flawed but appealing characters. A complicated yet satisfying, kid-friendly storyline combines with vocabulary-stretching, thought-provoking language, such as Mr. Burrows' comment about Hungarians being strong in "extralinguistic" communication. Who would casually drop "extralinguistic" into a young adult novel? Maile Meloy does. I think it's extraordinary.

I imagine teen bookworms will decide for themselves whether this book runs too deep for them, or is just right. If they make the decision based on whether or not the word "Apothecary" on the cover turns them off, they might be on the right track. But if they do open it, I think the book will draw them into its heady mixture of surprises, mystery, romance, peril, laughs, and strange, rich imagery that strikes upon seldom-traveled paths in the reader's imagination.

This first installment in the "Apothecary" series was Maile Meloy's first novel for young adults. It currently has two sequels, The Apprenctices and The After-room. Meloy's other works include the grown-up novels Liars and Saints, A Family Daughter, and Do Not Become Alarmed, the novella Devotion, and the short-story collections Half in Love and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. Meloy is the sister of Colin Meloy (lead singer of The Decembrists and author of the "Wildwood" trilogy) and the niece of award-winning nature writer Ellen Meloy.

No comments: