Book Group Corner
Sinclair is great for Book Groups because it has lots of interesting characters and lots of ideas to discuss.
The story begins with Edinburgh surgeon James Sinclair and Captain Frank Greenwood of the Bengal Army on board the ill fated ship the Sherwell. They are on their way to India to make their fortunes. When the storm of the century blows in January 1786 James and Frank are two of few survivors from the wreck. With everything they own at the bottom of the sea James and Frank are forced back to London. They are both traumatised by the storm and financially they are at rock bottom.
While Sinclair and Greenwood are struggling with the fury of the ocean Charlotte Leadam is on her way back to London from Yorkshire. She had left her home in Tooley Street with her husband and son before Christmas to visit in-laws in Yorkshire. While they were away her husband became ill and died. Now she is a young widow with a teenage son. She has inherited her husband’s apothecary shop and his debts. The problem is she cannot run the apothecary shop without a licensed surgeon or apothecary in residence and as a woman she the authorities will never grant her one no matter how good an apothecary she is.
Thus, Charlotte finds herself emotionally exhausted and struggling to survive. While she is considering what to do her ambitious mother engages Mrs Peacock, a banker’s wife from the City, to find her daughter a financially advantageous marriage.
When Charlotte meets Sinclair they take an instant dislike to each other. But later Charlotte sees that they might be able to help each other. The pair strike a bargain and Sinclair proves to be a caring and astute doctor. He trains his apprentices well and is good for business.
Living in the attic rooms over the apothecary shop the lives of Sinclair and Charlotte become enmeshed. Consequently their feelings for one another grow. All seems well until Iona McNeal, the woman Sinclair once loved, appears unexpectedly in London. Then their selfish behaviour threatens them all.
With his hopes of a relationship with Charlotte dashed Sinclair reaches his lowest ebb. He descends into melancholy and drink. He want’s to reclaim Charlotte’s love but he does not know how. The opportunity to redeem himself occurs when he help to save her family in Yorkshire from disaster but Charlotte is so angry with him she does not acknowledge what he has done.
The moment of catharsis comes when Sinclair is injured and Charlotte comes to his aid.
The politics of class and poverty in 18th century London are vividly described in this story of ambition, love and betrayal. The period is beautifully bought to life through Julia’ detailed research and fast moving story telling. The history of medicine is told hand in hand with a story of love, sexual desire and emotional betrayal in London, Yorkshire and Edinburgh.
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Questions for Book Groups
- At the beginning of the story the first chapter establishes the two male protagonists, then in chapter two, we meet Charlotte the main female character, for the first time. Discuss the similarities and differences between the introductions to the characters. What are your first impressions?
- The traditional women’s role is turned upside down in this story, with the women having the means to make a living usually owned by men. Discuss how this affects the characters and the nature of their predicament.
- Each of the female characters make decisions that impact significantly on their lives. Look at the decisions they make. How do they affect their businesses and family?
- Realising you have made the wrong choices is just as important as realising you have the right choices. Look at the men in this story – Sinclair, Greenwood and Robert Leadam, John Leadam, Dr Martin and Mr Husselbee. Discuss the choices they make and why they make them.
- How do you feel the relationships between different classes are handled in this novel?
- The author’s depiction of life in the apothecary shop provides a vivid picture of everyday family life and life of medical apprentices in London. What did you find most interesting about medical training at the end of the 18th century?
- In the story Sinclair’s beliefs are tested to the limit. Is he a better man for it?
- In this book, Charlotte Leadam is a guiding force in Sinclair’s moral development unlike in many novels of time such as those by Jane Austin where the leading male character is the guiding force. This is a more modern approach to the heroine’s role. Does it work in an 18th century context and do the other female characters have the same moral authority?
- The author makes several references to financial corruption and the power of big business over individuals and the institutions of the state. How did it make you feel about this period in English history? Does the novel make you think about what’s happening in the world of commerce today?
- What do you think the future holds for the families? How do you imagine their stories playing out?