Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

This ARC (courtesy of G.P. Putnam’s Sons) comes out in two days. I really enjoyed reading this one. I think it’s definitely a good book for the younger set of YA readers. I’d even put it on lists for reluctant readers if not for a few key things that will most likely prevent reluctant readers from even giving it a try.
I’ll get to that later, though. First, it really was a very interesting story. It’s about 14-year-old Janie moving with her family from California to London in 1952, just at the beginning of the Cold War. It’s noted in the beginning that Janie’s eccentric, tv writing parents don’t fit in with the conservative, communist-accusing society they were in, and moving to London, though painful for Janie, seemed necessary.
Janie, at her new London school, feels immediately drawn to Benjamin, a boy who refuses to “duck and cover” during the periodic bomb drills. Later, you find out his rebelliousness stems from the fact that his mother died in WWII during one of the bombings in London, and he knows that sitting under a cafeteria table would not have saved her.
Janie and Benjamin become quick friends over things like chess and pretend spy games. But, soon one of their pretend spy games actually turns into something real. Benjamin’s dad, the apothecary, tells Benjamin and Janie to hide in a secret workshop in his basement one day when a couple of Germans (one with a scar on his face), raid their house. When Benjamin and Janie escape, the adventure really begins. They search for Benjamin’s father, learn about what being an apothecary really means (which apparently involves magical like recipes with healing plants that allow for all sorts of magical science), get interrogated by the Scotland Yard, get locked in prison, befriend a thief named Pip, fall in love, escape Russian spies at every turn, rescue fathers, save families, prevent nuclear bombs from destroying whole cities, and save the world from further nuclear devastation.
The two things I loved the most: the kid power and the magic. Janie, Benjamin and Pip were constantly saving adults, sneaking into classrooms, stowing away on boats to Russia, and doing all sorts of things adults wouldn’t be able to do. And I loved every moment of it. The adults eventually even used the kids to help them, like sending Janie (the smallest) into the secret hideaway where the nuclear bomb was to be detonated, so she could find out as much information as possible. It has been proven time and time again in books and movies that kids make the best spies.
And I really loved the apothecary magic. There was a very important book of “spells” in Latin that they were constantly guarding with their lives. And while I kept making witch comparisons, the characters never mentioned witchcraft or magic; to them it was all a kind of science. And the people who worked with the apothecary, all considered themselves scientists. And when I say magic, I mean the kids found ways to turn themselves invisible. The apothecary turned himself into a pile of salt. The kids were able to transform into birds and actually fly. And the scientists were able to disguise their getaway boat with a new paint job in the middle of the ocean, and even stop time for a little bit to help prevent a nuclear explosion.
There was a little talk about everything having a consequence and how there is a negative side to all apothecary things, but I never really felt like this was adequately explained. Janie kept mentioning seeing a dark cloud after doing the big magic (like stopping a nuclear bomb after it detonates), but nothing ever really happened with the cloud. Frankly, this part could have been left out because I needed to know more, or have nothing at all.
Besides that there was one other thing that really bothered me. I hated how the whole story was told in the past tense. YA and children’s authors take huge risks in writing books from the perspective of an adult looking back. Adults are not only hard to relate to, but kids, teens, and even myself (a real life adult) just don’t want to relate to them. And it took me a while to get into the story because I hated picturing an adult narrating it, an adult who is so far away from what is happening. I loved the middle, and eventually got so lost in the story I forgot about the whole past tense thing. But, then the end happened and I found myself kind of angry again.
I get why the author did it. A part of Janie’s memory was taken from her, to protect her and her family. And she later gets her memory back when a certain journal is returned to her. But I really think the story could have held on to that same story line, and that same feeling, if Janie was only two years older in the introduction and conclusion. I wouldn’t have felt so distanced then. I also had to go back and re-read the A Note to the Reader section in the beginning to make sure Janie had the ending I wanted for her. I wish the ending was more clear at the end as well because I don’t know a lot of young readers who will go back to the beginning after finishing it. I just feel like 1952 is already such a different world for young readers today. Why distant them further by making Janie so old?
Any way, besides the whole distancing-adult thing and the dark side of apothecary science that was not really described well, I did love the story. I loved how strong and independent the characters were, particularly Benjamin. I rooted for Janie the whole time. I even loved all the Great Expectations, Dickens (in general), and Henry James references –though, again these probably added to the distance forged between old Janie and the young readers of today, too. I give it an 8/10. And I wouldn’t object to a sequel, though I’m fairly certain there won’t be one (because of the timing it’s set up in).

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