“Alchemy, after all, is altogether a safer and more predictable art than life. Alchemy involves no physical journeys, no interaction with living human beings. The alchemist suffers heartbreak and disappointment, but not often betrayal.“
“The Alchemist’s Daughter” by Katharine McMahon
These days, it seems everyone’s daughter has a book written about them, but I decided to take a chance with an alchemist’s, in this novel by Katharine McMahon. It follows the exploits of Emilie Selden in the 1700s, a young woman kept cloistered in the world of science by her alchemist father John. The walls of that carefully kept existence come tumbling down at the arrival of the intriguing Aislabie, who sweeps Emilie off her feet despite her father’s best intentions. When John Selden returns home from London to find a pregnant and engaged daughter, the destruction of his carefully controlled world is complete. Emilie is driven off to London, where she discovers a strange new world and must figure out how to keep up with these rapid changes while her heart only longs to go back to the way things were before she discovered love and the heat of passion.
With Emilie as our narrator, we get a wonderfully vivid picture of the world through her eyes, and, though the prose is lovely, I’m afraid I did not particularly care for Emilie much. Instead of finding a story where I rooted and cared for a clever heroine, I found myself mostly just intrigued by her strange perceptions of the world, her odd sense of selfish entitlement, and just the little details of this world that McMahon has brought us into. It was an interesting little case study, though I didn’t feel particularly attached to the story, and the ending dragged on a little too long for my tastes. I didn’t really care if Emilie found redemption or not at the end, but I did find myself curious as to what she’d uncover next. This made for a strange reading experience, like I was as detached from the subject of the book as John Selden might have been detached from his own experiments. Whether or not this was intention, I’m not entirely sure, and, while I enjoyed reading the book and found myself returning to it often, there was no real strong attachment to it. I’m glad I read it, but if anyone asked me how I liked it, I would probably just shrug my shoulders and offer a half-hearted, “Meh.”
There was also a surprising lack of alchemy in the book, too, I felt. Emilie touches on a few aspects of it, but it never seemed to be as driving a force as I expected it to be. It was more for the basis of comparison, something for Emilie to relate her experiences to, and I still don’t fully comprehend some of the concepts she was apparently so well-versed in. It could be my not paying enough attention or my own lack of alchemical self, but I wished I’d come out feeling more in tune with the concepts than confused by them.
Overall, the book is sumptuously written, and I did greatly enjoy that part, and, as I said, it kept me interested to know what was going to happen next. I did not particularly care for Emilie as a person, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. She was more realistic this way, not some plucky Mary Sue of a heroine, possessing fatal flaws that made me downright despise her on occasion. It was realistic, like I was reading just some intriguing little footnote on a historical text about society in the earlier 1700s, and I think therein was the charm for me. I enjoyed visiting this small slice of the world for a little while, and I think that’s why I kept wanting to come back
Books read: 014/100.
“sumptuously written” That’s a good enough recommendation for me!