A Suspenseful Tale of Adultery, Power, and Womanhood: Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty

I recently finished reading Apple Tree Yard by British writer Louise Doughty, whose last novel Whatever You Love was longlisted for the Orange Prize (now known as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award.

It’s a mystery/suspense tale that opens with 52-year-old Yvonne Carmichael sitting on the witness stand in her own trial. She has been accused of being an accomplice to murder. After the chilling prologue, Yvonne takes us back about a half year or so, to the day she meets X (the only name we have for him at this point). She is on a lunch break after presenting before a governmental committee, and she catches his eye and vice versa. He begins walking with her, and then guides her down one set of stairs after another, until they are alone in the basement of an old chapel. In this way their affair begins.

Yvonne addresses the entire novel to her secretive, unnamed lover, calling him “you.” Through her story we understand the context of this affair and where she is in her life. She is an accomplished and respected geneticist. She is married to another academician, lives in the suburbs, and has two grown children. Her marriage is stable, familiar. Her husband did hurt her some years back, but she has chosen to stay in the marriage. She has a troubled son with whom she has a tenuous relationship, but she loves him dearly, and is desperate to do the right thing not to drive him away.

Yvonne, though a semi-unreliable narrator, is a nice, “normal” woman, the grown-up girl next door who always did well in school, who followed the rules, and tried her best to have a quiet, meaningful life juggling career and family. She says, “Until I met you, I was not the sort of woman to throw caution to the wind” (page 44), and “I suppose there are two types of adulterers; the repeat types, and the one-offs. I fall into the latter category. I would never have had an affair if I hadn’t met you.” (page 311)

One night, Yvonne is attacked. She chooses not to tell her husband or her girlfriend and confides only in X. From here a series of events unfold like the kind of nightmare that one sees happening only to other people on television. In less than a year that she’s begun this affair, Yvonne finds herself facing a potential prison sentence.

I was captivated from beginning to end. The premise of the story itself is not all that original – so many stories have been written about love affairs gone awry – but what also kept me engaged is the psychological tale of a woman trying to find meaning, or something, in midlife. Yvonne is a woman who could be a colleague or a friend or a neighbor, someone who has it “all,” at least within the limitations of real life. Reading this book was like reading a long letter from a good girlfriend who is smart, successful, witty, unsure, flawed, and vulnerable. I think that many of us can see pieces of ourselves in Yvonne.

I also sensed the emptiness she feels in her life, a life in which she is hungry for connection with the opposite sex. She hasn’t seen her son in two years but fears driving him away if she comes too close. Her husband is married to his work and they haven’t had sex in three years. As a woman scientist, she is wary of licentious looks and power plays with male graduate students. About being propositioned by a male student who is depending on her external review of his dissertation, she says: “Maybe he wanted to f*ck me because he knew that I had indeed – simply by being who I was – already f*cked him.” (page 53) And in comparing her relationship with her husband with that of her lover, she describes the former as being full of knowledge of one another but with little intimacy, and the latter as being void of knowledge but filled with intimacy.

But even someone of her age, professional status, and confidence is ultimately reduced to the primitive and physically weaker position of woman. This is Yvonne’s internal struggle when she attempts to finalize an email asking her attacker to stop contacting her:

“Before I hit Send, I look at those two sentences for a long time. I shouldn’t be saying “please.” I should be telling him, not pleading with him. ‘Please’ was what I said, repeatedly, during the attack, and much good it did me. But if I leave it out, it’s an imperative, a command, and that might anger him. It comes to me with great force, and it is a sober and simple thought, that I am very afraid of him, viscerally afraid . . . Fear fought with my education, my achievements, my politics: fear won. ‘Please’ stayed in.” (page 138)

Apple Tree Yard was such a satisfying read for me because it encapsulates the things I look for in a mystery but have a hard time finding in one book, and it has those elements in just the right doses. It is entertaining yet thought-provoking; suspensefully paced and yet not merely plot-driven; erotic yet tasteful. This book also appealed to me as a woman who thinks about issues of relationships, gender, security, and power.

22 comments on “A Suspenseful Tale of Adultery, Power, and Womanhood: Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty

  1. Akshita says:

    Sounds like a really interesting read. I especially liked reading the second-last paragraph, about Yvonne’s struggle with trying to balance pleading and telling. These kinds of struggles happen even during leading projects; it is difficult to determine how to tell somebody (mostly a male) to do something without hurting egos; because I obviously can’t pretend that it’s not an order.

    • Cecilia says:

      That’s a very interesting point, Akshita. Come to think of it, yes, this happens in daily life as well. I know that some wives often have to be conscious of this when asking their husbands to do something or to stop doing something. I wonder if men have to do the same or if it’s women mainly who do this internal back and forth…

  2. whatmeread says:

    This sounds good! I’m going to watch for it.

  3. Naomi says:

    I have also been drawn, in the last few years, to books whose characters are in midlife and struggling with their identities (as well as many other types of books). Even more so if the character is a bit older than me, maybe because I am trying to prepare myself for what could be ahead. For me, reading is a good way to be aware of all the thoughts and feelings that could possibly exist, so someday, if they happen to me, I won’t be so surprised. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Aside from all that, your description of this book is wonderful, and it has been added to that ever-increasing list! :)

    • Cecilia says:

      Yes, what you wrote absolutely makes sense! I feel exactly the same. We must be around the same age/generation, Naomi. I also enjoy learning about the experiences of women a bit older than myself for the same reasons. Do let me know if you have found any good books about women in midlife.

      • Naomi says:

        Yes, I will! I find it hard to find good ones with main characters who are both female and in the right age range. One book I read a little while ago, that was good, was called The Age of Hope by David Bergen. It is about an ordinary woman with an ordinary life, and it takes you through her life from when she was young until she is old. I thought it was very well done, especially since it was written by a man. You can also find good ones in among Alice Munro’s stories.

        • Cecilia says:

          Thanks, Naomi! I will definitely look up The Age of Hope. And I am very eager to read more Alice Munro this year. That’s a really good suggestion.

          I also just thought of one – a fellow blog friend sent this to me for my birthday last year when she read my post about time slipping – it’s called Magical Journey and it’s a memoir about a woman searching for contentment, meaning, and a new identify after her 2 sons left home. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15018652-magical-journey?from_search=true
          I have to admit that I put the book down after the first few pages, when she described the empty house that she went home to after her second son left home. I was going through a phase where I thought my 9 year old was growing up too quickly, and it was just too much for me emotionally to think about college! I will pick it up again when I am feeling braver ;-)

          • Naomi says:

            That sounds good! There are probably other memoir books on this subject, the trick is finding the good ones. Last night, a friend of mine suggested The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd (which I haven’t read). She said it is also about an new empty-nester who is trying to figure out who she is and what she is going to do next with her life. Have you read this one?

            • Cecilia says:

              I haven’t read that one though I think I’ve seen the title. I know she is well known for her other books. I’ll look it up. Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. A brilliant review and you have captured the real strengths of this book. Although love affairs feature in several books, it is rare to read one where you really understand why a woman would ‘throw caution to the wind’ This book really has the wow factor and made it to my top 10 of 2013.

    • Cecilia says:

      Thanks! I’m so glad that you felt strongly about this book as well. I like mysteries but it’s hard to find one that’s not formulaic or just plot driven.

  5. Carolyn O says:

    Great find! Did you find the second-person narration wearing at all, or did it work throughout the novel?

    • Cecilia says:

      Interestingly, it worked for me and I think it helped me somehow feel more connected to the lover as a result. He is such a mysterious figure that otherwise I don’t think I could have felt anything for him. She also says “you” rather sparingly. I normally hate second-person narrations and once stopped reading (another book) because of it.

  6. Cecilia,

    I am unfamiliar with this Doughty’s work. I love how you spotlight author’s that may not appear in the mainstream. The premise sounds interesting and complicated. It appears that the author has chosen to layer her story by not only focusing on midlife, but the very real questions of identity and purpose that stream out of that period. I also find the POV narration interesting as well. Thanks so much for calling attention to this read.

    • Cecilia says:

      Thanks, Rudri! I had never heard of this author, though she has written a number of books. Her last one seems to have been highly received so I will check it out. So far Apple Tree Yard is being received well by readers.

  7. Galit Breen says:

    Ooh this one sounds interesting, although maybe hard to read?

    (This is a great view! Just detailed enough to entice, but doesn’t give away too much! I love a well written mystery as well!)

  8. I added this one to my to read list. Great Post – thanks so much for sharing:) Happy Hump Day!

  9. I would have never purchased this book had I read the synopsis on the back cover while standing in a store, but the excerpt you selected, and your analysis, makes me wonder if I shouldn’t give it a chance. I rarely read mysteries because on the whole I don’t really like the genre that much, but perhaps I would enjoy this one…

  10. […] A Suspenseful Tale of Adultery, Power, and Womanhood: Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty @ Only You […]

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