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Off the Shelves: Transformative tale about a father and child

POSTED: June 17, 2012 7:00 a.m.

Coming up on this Father’s Day, I found myself thinking about the relationship between fathers and daughters, and sometimes I wonder exactly what my own father has expected from me during the course of my life.

Maybe it is because of those thoughts that I found myself drawn to a novel by Katharine McMahon, “The Alchemist’s Daughter,” in which the bond between a father and his daughter may be one of the most unbreakable yet heartbreaking forces in nature.

Hidden away in their reclusive home of Seldon Manor, John Seldon has raised his daughter Emilie in the ways of natural philosophy and alchemy. As Emilie grows older, she wonders if she herself is some odd experiment of her father’s, as he constantly writes down her progress in a special notebook that he will not allow her to see.

Then on her 19th year in 1725, the Seldon estate begins to receive guests that intrigue Emilie, including a handsome nobleman who claims to have an interest in alchemy. Her father is hostile toward these intrusive visitors, but Emilie for the first time falls blindly in love with the young nobleman, and through mechanizations not entirely of her own design, she agrees to marry him. Her father shuts her out completely, and she is whisked away to London to begin her new life with her new husband.

When she returns to Seldon Manor several years later to attempt a reconciliation with her father, a tragic discovery reignites her passion for alchemy. Amidst a barrage of changes that threaten to dismantle her childhood home, she becomes consumed in her father’s final alchemical experiments, which involve breathing life back into dead matter.

McMahon’s story shows the struggle between logic and emotion, between orderly science and chaotic human nature. Yet between these two black-and-white forces, alchemy is the gray area; while most people in the village believe it is a sort of “pseudo” science (even referring to John Seldon as a “magician” at times), both John and Emilie are devoted to understanding its transformative properties. It may be driven by their desire to initiate transformations within themselves — John may be trying to accept fatherly love into his stoic, logical existence, and Emilie uses science as a channel to bring her confusing emotions under control.

Thus the tangible and intangible overlap, but neither can seem to find perfect balance or overrule the other. Even the haunting atmosphere of Selden Manor itself carries an ambiguous “grayness” about it — a house were laboratories and libraries contain experiments intended to unlock secrets, and yet secrets about Emilie’s past and her family history abound in its walls.

Emilie is a richly developed character (sadly, the other characters come across as rather flat and predictable), searching for her strengths in a society where she is expected to be polite and demure. She is constantly aware of her two distinct selves: the erratic self that gets swept away by her feelings, and the reflective self that is always observing, always aware, always searching for answers. She is the only truly strong presence in the novel, however, as most of the other characters serve mainly as symbolism for certain social classes or professions in 18th century England.

“The Alchemist’s Daughter” is an engaging story, although some parts of the plot had the makings of being more surprising but fell short. But this is definitely worth a read, and is a good ode to the bond, both on a mental and emotional level, between father and daughter.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on

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