The Alchemist’s Daughter is a historical novel by Katherine McMahon about love, awakening and alchemy set in 1725, England. The central character is enigmatic Emilie Selden raised by her father, a brilliant if misguided scientist who has fascination with alchemy. It is summer and the two are carrying out experiments into Phlogiston, a theoretical substance believed at the time to be produced when a naked flame reacts to the atmosphere. It is during this summer that two strangers enter and disrupt their secluded lives. Despite the fact that Emilie is intelligent and knowledgeable about science and philosophy, she is ignorant of matters pertaining to the human heart. When one of the strangers manages to capture her imagination and possibly her heart, Emilie finds herself forced to make a difficult decision. Once the smoke dissipates, it is clear that nothing will ever be the same again.
McMahon has created a historically accurate and truly believable world full of sensory detail. Each page is alive with beautiful descriptive language. A tremendous amount of research must have been done for this book. I learned a great deal about alchemy while reading. Although to anyone with a rudimentary understanding of chemistry, the theories held at the time seem laughable. She renders each scene perfectly, be it Emilie’s father’s study, a dark London alley, a heady brothel or a sunny summer orchard. The narrative is written the in the first person which gives us a great amount of insight into Emilie’s inner thought processes and the psychological side of her journey. Her characters are fully realised, with not a single one ringing false.
The novel is well plotted though it can sometimes be predictable. The juxtaposition between Emilie’s fierce intelligence, detailed scientific knowledge and extreme naiveté can be frustrating as we see her navigate situations with which she has no experience. It takes the protagonist far too long to come to a realisation that the audience came to many pages beforehand. Also frustrating is Emilie’s realistic position in society. Too often is she treated like a trained monkey because she is a highly educated woman in a time period when a female scientist was an oddity. Worse, her opinion is regularly disregarded by inferior minds because of her sex. But most frustrating of all is that the conclusion is left too open-ended and thus is rather unsatisfying. Emilie’s happiness is left in the balance. Though the book was engrossing and well written, these facts detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
On her journey towards understanding and love, Emilie suffers through many hardships but always emerges at the end of each having learnt from her mistakes. Throughout Emilie observes all around her and though her passionate yet logical nature is contradictory, she nevertheless is a whole, sympathetic complex heroine.
The novel is not just a piece of historical fiction. It is a bildungsroman, a coming of age story. The story shares many thematic plot points with the story of Rapunzel, dealing with issues of naiveté, abandonment, growing into womanhood, seclusion and overprotective parenting that leaves a person unprepared for the dangers outside. The story also has elements of mystery as well pertaining to the ongoing lack of knowledge about her mother. Lest you think this is a staid corset drama, it should be noted that this story has many action filled scenes in between the more reflective passages.
In summation, this is a story about a young woman coming to truly know herself and the world. It is this gradual coming into herself, this growth from weakness to strength that keeps you reading, along with the beautiful atmospheric and evocative prose. It does not take much imagination to place yourself beside Emilie in that warm, stifling and dark laboratory.
McMahon is also known for The Crimson Rooms and The Rose of Sebastopol.
Content Note: There are some graphic sex scenes in this book, so read with caution.
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a
matter of chance.”
Paperback: 346 pages
Publisher: Phoenix; New Ed edition (6 Sep 2006)
Genre: Historical Fiction/ Historical Romance
Author Website: Katherine McMahon Official Website
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