For The Someday Book

Book Review: The Alchemist’s Daughter

Posted on: January 7, 2016

The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon, Three Rivers Press, 2006, 346 pp.

Alchemist's DaughterThe Alchemist’s Daughter is a beautiful historical novel set in England in the early 18th century. McMahon writes wonderfully, with a rich prose in the narrative voice of her central character and a unwinding revelation of the story in both the narrator and in the reader.

The story is told to us by Emilie Selden, the alchemist’s daughter herself. Since her mother died in childbirth, she has never left the family estate, and known only her father, a cook and gardener (Mr. and Mrs. Gill) as her daily companions. She has had occasional interaction with villagers or the parish priest, but her reclusive father has endeavored to keep her isolated. She has spent every day with him and his experiments, learning the depths of science and natural philosophy available at the time.  Loneliness pervades the narrator’s voice, though her lifetime of isolation barely gives her language to understand it.

The main story begins when she is 18. Her father is away and a handsome, wealthy fop (Aislabie) comes riding into the estate. Having never learned to navigate relationships with anyone, much less a flirtatious suitor, she falls for the gentleman and ends up entangled in a binding relationship. Due to the law of the time, her father’s estate also falls into the hands of Aislabie, and she risks losing everything she has ever known.

As a parent, I saw The Alchemist’s Daughter as a cautionary tale about the folly of isolating our children from the world instead of preparing them to encounter it. It’s also the story of Emilie discovering the truth of her life and her world, and how she claims her place in it. She is the alchemist’s daughter, rich in knowledge few men and likely no women shared at the time.

One of the most interesting characters in Emilie’s small world is Rev. Shales, the new parish priest and also a naturalist. While she and her father are engaged in alchemy experiments to bring forth life from death, the priest objects on moral grounds. His words captured a beautiful resonance for me as a pastor.

In my work, I meet the dying and bereaved every day. I have seen young children fail, and women and their new born infants die in childbirth. I would do everything in my power to restore them, but in the history of mankind only Jesus Christ had that gift. There is much we could do to improve life–decent food, medicine, clean air, warm homes. Let’s concentrate on what sustains life, not on some fruitless attempt to bring it back. (27)

Again later, in a conversation with Emilie after her relationship with Aislabie proves problematic, Shales expresses thoughts about prayer and the afterlife that could have spoken for me.

Emilie: “I feel punished.”
Shales: “No. No. I do not believe in a mechanism for punishment and reward.”
Emilie: “So your prayer is not entreaty.”
Shales: “For what? For favors? For an assured place in heaven? I have tried all kinds of asking and am never satisfied. What I know is that the expectation of heaven can be no substitute for what happens here. It can’t be an excuse for inflicting misery on others. But sometimes I can’t help hoping that heaven will contain a few shocks for those of us who are complacent or cruel.” (156-157)

The Alchemist’s Daughter is a rich and wonderful story, beautifully written, transporting the reader into a tiny, isolated estate and the mind of a young woman who knows nothing else in the world. Read and enjoy.

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1 Response to "Book Review: The Alchemist’s Daughter"

I’m so glad you read and reviewed my book, and that you found resonance within it. Thank you for blogging about it, and I wish you all the very best for the coming year.
Katharine McMahon

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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