The Apothecary

By MAILE MELOY

For fourteen-year-old Janie Scott, daughter of a husband-wife comedy writing duo, life in midcentury Los Angeles involves women with French twists and men with undone ties drinking lemonade and wine on her parents’ porch, avocados eaten in “fat, green slices with salt right out of the shell,” and practicing her Katharine Hepburn swagger in bright green, flared sailor trousers. Within mere paragraphs, Maile Meloy — novelist, short story writer, and sister of Decemberists frontman and freshly minted young adult novelist Colin Meloy — demonstrates the snap, color, and wit that suffuse every page of The Apothecary, her first novel for young adults.
 
Unfortunately, 1952 is also the period when wartime “panic” has been replaced with “a constant, low-grade anxiety” — Cold War “duck and cover” drills and paranoia about Communists. Janie’s parents, on the verge of being blacklisted for political reasons, flee with her overnight to London, where they are employed to write for the BBC under pseudonyms (the TV show is modeled after a similar real-life Cold War program). “Going from Los Angeles to London in 1952 was like leaving a Technicolor movie and walking into a black-and-white one,” says Janie, now confined to a small, gray apartment with hot-water bottles for heat and black-market eggs.

But she soon befriends Benjamin, the son of the local apothecary, whose seemingly benign home remedies turn out to be centuries-old scientific potions that can turn people into birds, render children invisible, and perhaps even deflect nuclear war. A Chinese scientist, a Russian spy, a Bulgarian viscount, an orphan named Pip, and a crew of Norwegian sailors join the teens in their quest to save the world. Meloy’s heady, fantastical universe is grounded everywhere in small, carefully observed truths: “[T]o be a kid,” she writes, “is to be invisible and to listen, and to interpret things that aren’t necessarily meant for you to hear — because how else do you find out about the world?”