Book: The Alchemist’s Daughter.
Author: Katherine McMahon.
Apologies first and foremost to all my avid readers, I have been quite absent the last few weeks due to the busy and hectic run up to this holiday season. Believe me when I tell you all, that I would have rather been writing book reviews then the countless hours I have spent Christmas shopping and preparing my house for the impending festivities. Indeed it has taken me such a length of time to finish this book, and not all due to the hectic days I have been having, but also because I found this novel utterly disappointing. It bothers me to no end, that the first review I must write after so long, is a negative one. Alas, I have promised to give honest reviews and so I must proceed with this one much to my own reluctance.
‘The Alchemist’s Daughter’ is set in the early 1700s onwards and tells the tale of Emilie Selden, a quiet, sheltered girl who has been raised in an old run down family estate in Bukinghamshire, almost in captivity if you ask me, by her philosopher father, a well renowned alchemist and scientist. whose aim is to make Emilie his apprentice and sees her, a female, as an experiment also. Emilie craves attention and more importantly love and affection. Her father although apparently raising her lovingly, and gifting her with his teachings of alchemy, has moulded Emilie into a well educated young lady, capable of holding debates with most learned of men. Emilie herself, a curious girl desperate to make her father happy, loves alchemy and treasures the moments spent with her father, in his unending search for the theory of what causes fire. Emilie also seeks the truth of who her mother was, and as her father is so unwilling to impart his knowledge of her mother, Emilie lives in a state of utter frustration, as she tries to come to terms with who she is and what her role is in the world. However it soon becomes apparent to the reader, that even though Emilie is highly educated, she is completely clueless about how women should behave and has simply no idea what the real world is like.
Emilie’s sheltered existence comes under threat by the arrival of two men, polar opposites, who both become enamoured by Emilie’s beauty and intelligence. Reverend Shales is a quiet, kind man who is besotted with Emilie and encourages her curiosity but with less emphasis on Alchemy, since he is a reverend and is duty bound to disagree with the laws of Alchemy. Aislabie, is a flamboyant, charismatic, passionate man who sets his sights on Emilie, but secretly has ulterior motives. Emilie being so clueless and naive, allows herself to be seduced and destroys everything her father had been dreaming for in a simple selfish act, in her search for affection that has been lacking in her life up to this moment. Emilie’s small world is soon torn apart, as she now finds herself in a universe in which she knows nothing of, and must act a role she has never been trained for. Heartbreak and loneliness become huge themes in the novel following these events as Emilie is led down a path, she should never have gone.
I hated this novel. I cannot believe I am saying this as in theory the novel has everything needed to become a success. It has a wide range of interesting characters, it provides an in depth look at alchemy and the fascination scientists had for it in the 1700s. It provides a fascinating love story with plentiful love scenes that would make any reader blush. It has many moral arguments that any reader would like to sink their teeth into. Yet for some reason I was so utterly frustrated by this novel. The first half of the novel crawled by for me personally, I kept finding myself putting the book down. The second part of the novel, even though it picked up pace and contained much more exciting moments than the first half, was so full of over the top, dramatic, baffling moments that I started counting pages to see how much left of the book I still had to read before it was over.
The whole theory of Alchemy, although interesting and mildly captivating, was detailed in such a complicated manner, that a lot of it for me went over my head. I found myself yawning through the scenes in which Emilie and her father perform numerous experiments, when I should have been suffering from ‘mind blowness’ as I would like to call it. Although the author clearly did a lot of research on the topic which is what any reader would want, I do believe she could have written it in a more straightforward manner. Not all of us understand the scientific nature of the world and do in fact need it to be ‘dumbed’ down for us mere mortals.
That being said, I was willing to overlook this issue had I been able to relate to the characters more. However this was not the case. I wanted to fell sorry for Emilie, as would any reader, for living such a uneducated existence when it comes to the real world and what would be expected of her in it. After all, had her father simply imparted pieces of information regarding her mother and even given Emilie the slightest bit of affection, he would have armoured her instead of leaving her defenceless to the evils of the world. Instead of feeling empathetic for Emilie, I felt such a deep level of annoyance with her character. Aislabie is clearly a rake, and no matter how naive someone is, his arrogance and seductive manner would have sent clear warning signs to even the dumbest of characters. She could have clearly gone down a safer path with the Reverend Shales but no, that would have been too easy and wouldn’t have provided the reader with such a overly dramatic plot.
Emilie also is unwilling to see things from others perspectives, she does not understand that the world is a complicated place in which people make decisions and that there are consequences to such decisions. She is altogether quite selfish at times, but again this is due to her ridiculous upbringing. She is the result of ‘the sins of the father’ so to speak. She is both emotionless/heartless and yet emotional at the same time, it is as if the author couldn’t decide what kind of character she wanted to create. Detached is the word I would use to describe this character. There are certain scenes in the novel where I literally wanted to shout at her character for being so deficient and gutless. Even though one must admit that she is also a different kind of female, then is expected for that era, it would have simply be unheard of for a female to have an education like Emilie has. Nonetheless I found her character spineless when I wanted her to stand up for herself and make her mark. For example If someone was forcing me to change myself, to tear down my family home and give up a career that was once so important to me, to fit into a mould of a perfect wife, I would not stand around and do absolutely nothing, and allow an attractive man to distract me from this, by using affection as a tool. I just do not understand it, and why anyone would want to write a character such as this, is astonishing to me.
I also resented the other characters in the novel, who could have stepped in at any moment to prevent Emilie’s downfall. Mrs Gill for example, the only motherly figure Emilie knew, practically turned her back to Emilie when she needed her most. Even Reverend Shales, for all the good he represented, could have whisked Emilie away from such a dreadful path. Instead he just warns her vocally and very insipidly, instead of actually doing something in an act of prevention. Once again in relation to her father, by keeping Emilie oblivious to the outside world, he set her on this depressing life journey. It is his fault, in my opinion, that all these events occurred. He created Emilie in his image, and while that image might work for him, it does not work for a young woman in the 1700s who hasn’t a clue how women act in this era. It was all so utterly frustrating to me as a reader.
What I also don’t understand, is what kind of novel McMahon is trying to achieve. Is it historical fiction? or is it trying to be a scientific fiction? or a bodice ripping romance? I shall leave it to you readers to determine should you wish to read this novel, but I was completely confused as to what kind of novel I was reading. The first part of the novel, as mentioned previously details so much scientific inquiry, that is so complex, that one does feel they are reading a scientific journal. However the addition of historical figures such as Isaac Newton and various other famous philosophers, and the various mentions of how these famous characters brought about the age of enlightenment, challenging the church and whatnot, has lead me to believe it could be a historical fiction. Then there is of course the various amorous scenes in the novel, that would allow it to compete with any Mills and Boon novel. Its genre is terribly confusing as a result.
Overall for me, it was a terrible novel and one I would not recommend to my dearest friends.I must begrudgingly admit that although I found the events in the novel terribly predictable, from the second part of the novel onwards, I could not put the book down. Even though I knew what was going to occur and knew that it would not be the ending I would like, I still persisted reading through it and was disappointed at the end as I foresaw. In fact the ending was so lifeless it is as if the author gave up. I am of the opinion that once I start a book, I must always finish it. However I really wish that after the first half of this novel, I should have realised it wasn’t going to get any better and I should have put it down, even though it goes against everything I believe in as a reader. I was actually aghast when reading other reviews of this novel that some readers actually quite liked the story. Nonetheless I do realise everyone has their own opinion on what works for them when it comes to novels. This unfortunately did not work for me. My sincere apologies to all the avid readers out there for my absence once more.
Happy Holidays to you all, and I hope you Christmas season is full of love, laughter and plenty of mince pies!
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The Avid Reader 🙂