Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

Apple Tree YardApple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would like to thank Goodreads first reads for my copy of Apple Tree Yard.
Apple Tree Yard is the first novel I have read by Louise Doughty. I came into it with the following expectations. First of all, I had heard amazing reviews about this novel, and secondly, I had heard it described as morally complex. Furthermore, I have heard Louise Doughty described as an author who writes literary “domestic noir.” I had also started reading Doughty’s first novel, Whatever You Love, and taken a break from it, finding it compelling and well written, but also dense and depressing. So with that said, I had high expectations that Apple Tree Yard would be a gripping, mind-bending, sexy mystery.
Apple Tree Yard was not exactly what I expected. From the summaries I read on Goodreads and on the book’s front flap, I assumed that the focus of the “moral ambiguity” in the novel would center around the affair that our narrator, Yvonne, has with a man she meets one day in the Houses of Parliament. Instead, there is a whole other aspect to the story, which dominates much of the second third of the novel, and which came out of the blue for me. This event, and the way it impacts Yvonne, are crucial to the entire plot. And for me, this component of the story was deeply depressing.
In my summation, the novel had three distinct parts. The first followed Yvonne, who is described (by herself, as well as in literary summaries) as a kind of normal, “everywoman,” contently married, with two children, and the usual problems and worries. In this first third of the book, we follow Yvonne as she becomes involved in an affair with a mysterious man who she meets one day while working at the Houses of Parliament in London. What follows is a description of their risky liaisons, and the feelings that they arouse in Yvonne.
The second part of the novel focuses on the violent event that occurs, and on the repercussions it has on Yvonne’s life. While I found the first third of the novel surprisingly dull (given that it was the narration of a supposedly torrid love affair), I found the second third of the novel almost unbearably depressing. I almost considered giving up reading Apple Tree Yard at this point, and continued mainly because it was a book I had won from Goodreads and I felt compelled to write an honest review.
However, the third part of the novel was perhaps my favorite. This final portion of the story follows the trial of Yvonne and her lover at the Old Bailey, as they are charged with, and plead not guilty to, a violent crime.
I am not usually one for courtroom dramas; I shy away from books or television programs described as such. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself riveted by the detailed descriptions that Yvonne gives of her trial, of the strategies of the barristers, of the way she felt as a defendant, and of her relationship to the jury. I have been on several juries, and experienced that side of the trial, so it was fascinating to “experience” a trial from the viewpoint of a defendant.
Part of what made this final portion of Apple Tree Yard so powerful was that it continued to explore a theme that Doughty introduces early on in the novel, that of how we all concoct our own personal mythologies; we tell ourselves stories about who we are. Sometimes our actions support our stories, and sometimes they don’t. When we are in a relationship, our partner has their own, separate, story about who we are. Sometimes our mythologies don’t match up. And no matter what, these stories we tell ourselves are simply one possible way that we narrate and string together events, but crucially, mythologies are subjective, and they are not necessarily, the Truth.
In the court trial of Yvonne and her lover, Louise Doughty shows how the barristers weave different stories with the same facts. And Yvonne, locked in a prison cell in between days in court, thinks deeply about why she had an affair in the first place, and why her lover had an affair with her.
To me, this final portion of Apple Tree Yard showcased Louise Doughty as a writer of profound insight into human motivations. Her revelations about why Yvonne acted as she did, and why her unnamed lover did what he did, were things I had never thought of before. These insights honestly blew my mind and helped me understand things I have observed in real life in a whole new way. I was incredibly impressed with Doughty’s wisdom, although I will say that at times, her ideas, expressed via Yvonne’s own thoughts, did border on feeling a little like a lecture. But regardless, the ideas she was sharing were so fascinating that I didn’t really mind.
At the very end of the novel, literally, in the last two pages, there is a twist that packs an emotional punch. I’m of a mixed mind about this literary choice, in that, while it took my breath away, it also seemed to put the novel back more into the suspense/thriller mode, rather than the emotional complexity that had been the thrust of the prior 50 pages. I’m not sure if the shift in tone was necessary, or if it added to the novel. I feel that it may have detracted from the emotional depth Doughty had impressed me with only pages earlier.
That said, in the final analysis, I am immensely impressed with Louise Doughty as a writer, and as a thinker. I don’t know how she got so wise, but I feel like I understand human relationships, and myself, better from having read Apple Tree Yard.
In the end, this novel was not at all what I had expected. It was dense, depressing, and slow at times. I found Yvonne to be unlikeable, cold, and difficult to identify with, despite being billed as an everywoman. I also found it difficult to comprehend her relationship with her lover in the first 2/3 of the story, as, despite being described as “erotically charged,” their sexual encounters seemed unexpectedly flat and unexciting to me. However, the final third of the novel raised Louise Doughty in my estimation as a writer of great talent and depth. Apple Tree Yard was, in many ways, a lot more serious, a lot heavier, and sadder, and also wiser, than I had expected. It was anything but fluff, and I believe I will reread some passages in the future, and continue to think about the ideas that Doughty explored.
After reading Apple Tree Yard, I plan to read more books by Louise Doughty, but only when I’ve also got something funny and comforting to read along with it, to remind me of the lighter side of life.

View all my reviews

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Caroline
    Feb 16, 2014 @ 04:45:34

    I’ve read Whatever You Love and liked it a great deal but she’s not a comforting writer. I’m glad to hear this is good. I’d like to read it.


    • Hannah
      Feb 16, 2014 @ 09:09:53

      Thanks for the further recommendation to read Whatever You Love. And I’ll be interested to what you think of Apple Tree Yard. 🙂


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