Loretta Barnard reviews Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty, warning those thinking about having a bit on the side that this book might just change their mind…
Apple Tree Yard
After making a submission on genetics to a Parliamentary Committee, 52-year-old Yvonne meets an attractive man who offers to give her a tour of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. In the crypt chapel, they have impulsive, passionate sex. It’s all very forbidden and exciting and Yvonne is thrilled, flattered and surprised at her own daring. A one-off experience, she thinks.
(The episode reminded me of the “zipless fuck” fantasy made famous many years ago in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying.)
But Apple Tree Yard is a novel, after all, and for the plot to progress, more must happen.
And happen it does.
Yvonne has been happily, if passionlessly, married for 30 years, although truly loves her genial husband, also a scientist. They have a comfortable lifestyle, two adult children (albeit one with problems) and successful careers. But she is irresistibly drawn to the mysterious sex-stranger and seeks him out.
What follows is a story of meetings for coffee, sex in unusual places and lots of subterfuge. Both Yvonne and her lover want to keep things secret – he is married too – and she gets caught up in the adrenaline rush of being involved in a clandestine affair. Indeed, the whole thing has an air of fantasy about it, as far as Yvonne is concerned.
But about halfway through Apple Tree Yard something awful happens, and the consequences that flow from it are traumatic and far-reaching. It becomes a psychological thriller combined with the drama of a high-profile court case. We don’t even know why Yvonne is in court until well into the book, so there’s an air of expectancy on the reader’s part.
(Mini-spoiler – the courtroom scenes at the Old Bailey are compellingly real.)
Doughty’s skills as a storyteller are impressive. This is a story where, on the one hand you don’t want to put the book down, but on the other, you don’t want to read on.
Yvonne’s double life, seemingly manageable at first, twists out of control. As she is the narrator, we hear her voice as she analyses her feelings, and tells stories to herself to make sense of the world.
“How do people operate on two levels, going about their normal lives while the rest of it is falling apart? You don’t need to be an adulterer to know about that. You only need to be someone who still has to go to work in the morning when their child is sick or in trouble – and that must be true of a huge proportion of the human race. ‘How are you?’ the receptionist asked me brightly the day after my son had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ‘Fine!’ I chirruped in reply.”
The face we present to the world is not necessarily our true face. Who is her lover? Is he genuine? Can we stay loyal when threatened? What will people do to save themselves? What is the truth? What is the significance of Apple Tree Yard, a cloistered alleyway at the heart of the story?
Apple Tree Yard is a gripping book, and if you’ve ever entertained the idea of cheating on your partner, this may well make you think twice about doing so.