The Pharmacist’s Wife is an atmospheric piece of historical fiction about female empowerment, manipulation, and addiction, set in Victorian Edinburgh. Rebecca Palmer’s husband Alexander opens a pharmacy and dreams of dreams of success with his new chemical invention: heroin. At the same time, he claims that it is the perfect cure for Rebecca’s hysteria, but the drug reminds her of her lost first love and draws her into a friendship that will reveal all her husband’s sexual secrets. Soon, she is fighting to escape Alexander and his obsession, but her position as his wife doesn’t make things easy for her.
The novel is a gripping read, with a dark Victorian vibe that emphasises both the dangers of addiction and abusive men and the difficult position for women in various situations. Tait focuses on creating the right atmosphere rather than on overloading on historical or scientific material, as could happen in drier historical fiction. The narrative is interesting, particularly the abusive ways in which Rebecca and other women are manipulated by men for science and for gain, plying them with drugs to make them docile and easy to manage. Sometimes the time jumps in the narrative are a little disjointed, but overall it is a good read.
The Pharmacist’s Wife is a historical novel that looks at problems that are not gone today, including the disempowerment of women, drug addiction, and abuse, as well as touching on other areas like the treatment of sex workers. It is one for fans of dark Victorian fiction, particularly those who’d enjoy the genre with a very slight dash of Trainspotting.