At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Emilie Selden, the alchemist’s daughter, is raised in isolation on a remote manor, to be a sort of scientific amanuensis to her father, as well as an experiment in and of herself. Over the course of Katharine McMahon’s The Alchemist’s Daughter, we learn that her father, though well-meaning, has deprived Emilie of some essential tools of survival (such as any insight into actual people) as well as having hidden the deepest secrets of her past. Emilie falls in love, experiences tremendous heartache and slowly comes to an understanding of herself and the world around her over the course of the novel, which ends on a hopeful note.
McMahon is very good at evoking the past and avoids the pitfalls of this kind of story where it must have been tempting to have Emilie be a “modern” girl in 18th century dress. I’m intrigued enough by this first novel of hers to want to read others.
(Read from February 21-24, 2010)