Book Review: The Pharmacist’s Wife by Vanessa Tait

The Pharmacist's WifeAbout the Book

Love. Desire. Vengeance. A deadly alchemy.

When Rebecca Palmer’s new husband opens a pharmacy in Victorian Edinburgh, she expects to live the life of a well-heeled gentlewoman. But her ideal is turns to ashes when she discovers her husband is not what he seems. As Rebecca struggles to maintain her dignity in the face of his infidelity and strange sexual desires, Alexander tries to pacify her so-called hysteria with a magical new chemical creation. A wonder-drug he calls heroin.

Rebecca’s journey into addiction takes her further into her past, and her first, lost love, while Alexander looks on, curiously observing his wife’s descent. Meanwhile, Alexander’s desire to profit from his invention leads him down a dangerous path that blurs science, passion, and death. He soon discovers that even the most promising experiments can have unforeseen and deadly consequences…

Format: ebook, paperback (400 pp.) Publisher: Corvus Books
Published: 5th April 2018                     Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Although a conscious escape from ‘spinsterhood and all the humiliations that went with it’, Rebecca Palmer’s marriage to pharmacist, Alexander, is not what she anticipated. Shocked when Rebecca shows small signs of sexual pleasure, Alexander chooses to interpret this as an indication of ‘unnatural’ urges that need to be controlled. It turns out he has just the drug to do it, an as yet unnamed ‘wonder drug’ that he has been developing in his laboratory above the pharmacy.

Initially the ‘medicine’ her husband prescribes (described by him as like bathing ‘an individual’s brain in a vat of contentment’) eases Rebecca’s anxieties and provokes pleasant dreams, memories of her first love, Gabriel.  However, since we soon learn that this ‘wonder drug’ is in fact heroin, unsurprisingly Rebecca finds herself increasingly dependent on the drug to get through the day.  And, as events unfold, it transpires Rebecca is not the first person to have been subjected to Alexander’s experiments.

With the exception of Gabriel, none of the male characters come out very well from the story.  Alexander, as well as using his wife as a guinea pig for his pharmaceutical experiments, is revealed to have unusual sexual proclivities and fetishes.  Alexander’s friend and business partner, the aptly named Mr Badcock, is a particularly unpleasant example of manhood.  Ironically, when both men eventually learn of the other’s vices, their hypocritical response is to condemn each other’s actions.

I really enjoyed the period atmosphere of the book and the descriptions of 19th century Edinburgh, including the less salubrious parts of the Old Town. ‘Here the streets were not as straight as they were in New Town.  They stuttered with differently angled, differently sized houses and lurched into the alleyways as if they were drunk.

The Pharmacist’s Wife convincingly illustrates the stages of drug dependency, with higher and higher doses needed to achieve the desired result, and the dreadful effects of addiction.  It also engages with the inequality between men and women at that time.  Sexual, economic, legal and psychological power all rested in the hands of men.  It’s a time when even a normal bodily function such as menstruation is regarded as a ‘disease’ and when it was seriously believed that ‘women’s temperament…could not bear as much as men.’  Child birth, anyone?

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Corvus Books, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Intriguing, atmospheric, mystery

Try something similar…The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin (click here to read my review)

Vanessa TaitAbout the Author

Vanessa Tait grew up in Gloucestershire. She went to the University of Manchester and completed a Master’s degree in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths College. She is the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired Lewis Carroll to write Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe Looking Glass House,  her first novel, draws on family treasures and stories of the “original” Alice.  The Pharmacist’s Wife is her second novel.

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Pharmacist’s Wife by Vanessa Tait

      1. I kind of look to you where my historical fiction is concerned (no pressure) so I trust your judgement implicitly. I still have some other titles to get through first anyway. I may pick it up in future but I’ll definitely wait for the price to come down. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Great review!

    Haha, and psychology and biology today support the idea that women have a stronger constitution than our male counterparts likely because of childbirth. Indications that women handle pain better overall, and I know that if I had been a boy, I likely wouldn’t have survived given how early I was born.

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