Book Review: The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon

23503Title: The Alchemist’s Daughter
Author: Katharine McMahon
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Drama
Publisher: Three Rivers Press
Publication Date: January 31st 2006
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Rating: 3,5 stars
Review copy purchased by yours truly.

There are long-held secrets at the manor house in Buckinghamshire, England, where Emilie Selden has been raised in near isolation by her father. A student of Isaac Newton, John Selden believes he can turn his daughter into a brilliant natural philosopher and alchemist. Secluded in their ancient house, with only two servants for company, he fills Emilie with knowledge and records her progress obsessively.

In the spring of 1725, father and daughter begin their most daring alchemical experiment to date – they will attempt to breathe life into dead matter. But their work is interrupted by the arrival of two strangers: one a researcher, the other a dazzling young merchant. During the course of a sultry August, while her father is away, Emilie experiences the passion of first love. Listening to her heart rather than her head, she makes a choice.

Banished to London and plunged headlong into a society that is both glamorous and ruthless, Emilie discovers that for all her extraordinary education she has no insight into the workings of the human heart. When she tries to return to the world of books and study, she instead unravels a shocking secret that sets her on her true journey to enlightenment.

Emilie Selden is the sheltered, mysterious daughter of John Selden, natural philosopher and student of none other than the great Isaac Newton himself. Although Emilie is a girl, John decided to enlighten his daughter about the mysteries and wonders of natural philosophy, mathematics and alchemy anyway. But whereas John definately succeeded to give Emilie the necessary knowledge about the sciences to get through life, he failed to provide her with all the rest, ranging from social insight to the way relationships and love work. Her incapability to live and function in the real world makes her ill-prepared for the lies and half-truths Aislabie, the first man who ever showed her any interest and breaches the solitude of her home, told her. She marries him in a whim, and makes the gravest mistake of her life. Because Aislabie is about to take everything away from her, everything she ever loved. Her father, alchemy, and maybe even her own home.

The Alchemist’s Daughter gave me plenty of mixed feelings. The setting is wonderful, 18th century England with The Enlightenment on its way and Isaac Newton and other famous scientists changing the way everyone looked upon the world. The author describes this world most beautifully, in vivid, lifelike colors and sounds, like you just stumbled upon a portrait or even in the middle of a genuine scene from the 18th century. These descriptions happen in a most humble, natural-sounding way and made me fall in love with this book from the first few lines. They’re what really made the book, and they really made it come alive in my opinion. But it has to be said that all the rest wasn’t all that good.

Emilie started out as a very promising character. She was an intelligent young woman, practically brilliant for her era, and although she never challenged her father in terms of upbringing and personal choices, she did challenge him on an intellectual level. I genuinely thought that this was the beginning of her own rebellion, her own dive into alchemy and Emilie actually taking a stand against her father. Reverend Shales, the first man who appears in Emilie’s life, is a natural philosopher as well, and seemed like a very good companion for her. I was hoping that she would eventually build up enough courage to confront her father about her feeilngs for Shales, and then maybe even get the ol’ man’s permission to marry the reverend. Emilie and Shales would have been a good team of natural philosophers, each with their own distinct area of interest, but capable of working together as well. The premise certainly did sound promising.

In comes Aislabie. He offers nothing really to Emilie, because he is a bit of a con-artist and hardly knows anything about real natural philosophy, let alone alchemy. He’s more interested in Selden estate than he is in the Selden daughter, in my opinion. Although he fails to challenge her intellectually, or even meet her half-way, Emilie is immediately swept away by Aislabie’s appearance. He’s very good-looking and he manages to act like he’s a smart duck – which he isn’t. I have to grant him the fact that he knows his way in the world, and he knows how to persuade people how to do his bidding, but that’s it. Against all reason, Emilie falls madly in love with Aislabie. One day, in the garden, the fellow practically rapes her. Yet she still loves him! And when he asks her father for her hand, she is happy, releived and glad to marry Aislabie. How sheltered can one be to go marry a guy who just raped you? Although I felt more than enough anger towards both Aislabie – for doing it – and Emilie – for allowing it – for these actions, I felt that maybe I couldn’t really blame Emilie for anything. After all, she was pretty sheltered, so I gave her the shadow of the doubt. But it got only worse.

By the time Aislabie turns out to be a cheating bastard – sorry for the word choice, but he really is – and has destroyed half of Selden Manor, Emilie still can’t figure out the fact that he’s an absolute idiot, a joker, and that she should get rid of him as soon as possible. Now I know Emilie hardly ever rebelled against her father either, and took everything with a nod and a half-hearted smile, but that’s no longer an excuse. If my husband went to tear down my house, especially my labatory and the room my own mother died in, I would shout, scream, hit, bite, fight…in other words, do whatever I possibly could to stop him from doing it. Emilie just stands there, like a rag doll, and although she complains about it towards Aislabie, she is totally not convincing, and she doesn’t even treaten him. For god’s sake. She’s the daughter of an alchemist, a man who studies not only the natural philosophy, but also the “forbidden” science, a man whose ideas are very modern for the era, revolutionary even. And there she stands, like a statue, letting herself getting bullied by her own husband. I was constantly urging Emilie to get up and do something. And with that I don’t mind trying to kill herself and burn her own god-damned legs. I meant actually doing something against the monster that is Aislabie. Hit him, slap him, kill him for all I care. Make a poisonous drink and feed it to him while he sleeps. Lock him up in a room and make something go boom. Make him stumble down the stairs and claim that it’s an accident. Anything. But don’t let him get away with it!

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Emilie does. Her failure to react very emotionally towards anything, except than the emotion of self-destruction and self-pity, makes her distant and cold as a character. I lost every ability to relate to her. I know that women were supposed to be weak little lambs in that era, but I don’t buy it that a person as rational and intelligent as Emilie would just shrug it off if a fellow as stupid and ignorant as Aislabie were to tear down her entire home, simply because he sleeps with her at night or kisses her passionately. If my husband were to come to me after tearing half my house down, he would certainly NOT be getting any sex, and he wouldn’t get kisses either. That she disregards her own feeilngs simply because he sleeps with her, is unimaginable and sounds just plain stupid. Either Aislabie gives the most amazing sex ever – which still wouldn’t explain things – or Katharine McMahon’s characters’ credibility really takes a turn for the worst here. I’m putting my money on the latter.

Emilie starts out as a promising character, but fails to deliver. Her own history, her love for alchemy and natural philosophy and her initial ambitions make her appear interesting at first. Her interests in the young men who walk into her life, first Shales and then Aislabie, are understandable, and I would let McMahon get away with marrying Emilie off to Aislabie as well. But then, when the latter starts with Selden Manor Demolition Day, all Emilie’s credibility as a genuine person melts away. She reacts in a shallow, emotionless, and just plain stupid way. Aislabie is a more realistic character – that’s not to say I like him, I’ve probably haven’t felt as enraged towards a character as I feel towards him in a long time – with his lies, half-truths and incredibly ambitious and greedy personality. He is portrayed as a villain, and he plays that role well, because I actually hate him. Shales is the good choice, the choice Emilie should have made from the start, and I instantly liked him. I would have liked it if I had gotten to know him better, because he is so much more interesting than Aislabie could ever be.

I was really impressed with Katharine McMahon’s research in the world of natural philosophy and alchemy. She describes the experiments of John and Emilie Selden to the utmost detail, the language she uses feels genuine for the era and the profession, and the experiments sound real enough. That alone was enough to keep me reading. I would have liked it if Emilie managed some interesting, life-changing break-through in either natural philosophy or alchemy, and was deeply dissapointed that this didn’t happen. I fail to see the point of adding in any science at all if it’s not plot-altering or at least very appropriate. The way the story works now, they could have easily called it The Hermit’s Daughter and just focused on the daughter of a guy whose only particular personality traits is that he enjoys seclusion from society.

When Selden was demolished by Aislabie and his crew of airheads, I was practically crying. I felt more attachment towards the beautiful hallways of Selden Manor, the secret passageways, the laboratory, the library and the several sitting rooms, than I felt towards the characters. I felt like wringing Aislabie’s neck when he tore down what seemed like one of the most beautiful houses ever.

I know that my review is a very mixed one. On the one hand, I’ve gone on and on about why the character of Emilie lacks credibility, and why Aislabie is my new number one enemy, but on the other hand, I do enjoy the alchemy-aspect of the novel, the beautiful setting of Selden Manor and London, the descriptive and era-appropriate narrator’s voice that really sketched the scenes and era for me in a most intriguing way and the over-all storyline. The story wasn’t really unpredictable, but there were some surprises along the way. If you enjoy historical fiction, this book really is a nice choice. It offers genuine scientific research and a well-defined and realistic setting. Just don’t hit me when you are as furious with the characters as I am, or when you find yourself plotting schemes to murder Aislabie by the end of this novel. The Alchemist’s Daughter has a promising premise, but it fails to deliver completely. It is interesting and entertaining and an emotional rollercoaster, but it is neither outstanding nor brilliant.


  1. I read your review because i am halfway through the book and ready to tear my hair out. Thanks for saving me the trouble of reading any further, so disappointed in this girl.

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