Apple Tree Yard

apple tree yardAfter The Luminaries I wanted something quick and easy, if you know what I mean, as a mental palate cleanser. In fact Apple Tree Yard fit the bill extremely well, but it was also a rather intriguing novel with more depth than I anticipated.

Yvonne Carmichael is a successful geneticist who happens one winter day to be reporting to a Standing Committee at the House of Lords. She is fifty-two, married to another scientist, with two grown children, and wearing new boots. As she leaves the building, she happens to fall in with a man, a complete stranger she glimpsed that morning in the café, and there is a fierce and unexpected connection between them. He starts a conversation with her and, as if on a whim, invites her to look at the Crypt Chapel, a place only members may enter. Once alone there, they have sex in a cupboard where cleaning supplies are stored. The balance of the encounter is delicate – for Yvonne, to whom such things do not happen, there is a devastating erotic charge, but for the reader, those cleaning supplies hint at a sordid, furtive shadow over the meeting, a reminder that framed differently, this could look ridiculous at best.

Yvonne assumes that it was a one off, and is relieved, and then sorry. She cannot quite prevent herself from walking around the area when she is next in London. Her marriage is solid, but dull; Guy seems so wrapped up in his own concerns he is unconnected to her, and their life together has been flawed by an affair he had many years ago and an emotionally unstable son. When she meets her mystery stranger again, she moves into an affair without too many doubts, convinced she can do this without hurting anybody.

However, we know differently. The novel opens with a prologue set in a law court where Yvonne is being cross-questioned and her lover is her co-accused. We don’t know the charge yet, but we do know that things are going to go badly awry. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, because what happens is surprising and unguessable (I certainly didn’t see it coming). But suffice to say that we know from the start that public humiliation and shame await Yvonne and that while she will try to the bitter end to keep the relationship a secret, she won’t be able to.

This is one of those ‘what if’ novels that for me have a bit less punch than the ones where you see how the consequences could happen to anyone. I kind of felt that Yvonne had enough on her plate with risky sex with a random stranger. The subsequent calamities that befall her certainly raise the stakes of the narrative but seemed to me properly awful and unlikely bad luck. That being said, this is a very well-written book, beautifully paced, well characterised and with a pull like a ten-ton magnet. I most certainly wanted to know what happened next, even though I already knew what would happen ultimately. And of course what would happen ultimately would be that the woman is punished excessively for having transgressive sexual desires. That seems inevitable in works of fiction, even though sexuality is one of our most troublesome, unruly and transgressive parts. That’s still something that we don’t yet feel able to be compassionate about – probably because being on the end of someone else’s unruly desires can be extremely painful, so the urge is always to judge harshly.

And this is very much a book about how things look to the outside world. It is very clever in this respect. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves, and how different they need to be to the stories we tell other people. It’s about the way that the framing of a story has a huge influence on how the story is heard. It’s also about gendered stories. The novel suggests that sex remains a different proposition for men and women; women cannot help but wrap it up in attachment, tenderness and love, while for men it’s all about the quantity. That’s the ancient story underlying all the others in Apple Tree Yard. So whilst this is a surprising and unpredictable novel at one level, I don’t think you’ll be at all surprised to know that the moral of the story is: be very careful who you pick up for casual sex.



26 thoughts on “Apple Tree Yard

  1. I got a copy of this last week and I am dying to read it, especially now (but it’ll have to wait a little while!) I’ve read several reviews that said it’s far better than most psychothrillers and yours confirms that too. One to store up for when I need a ‘mental palate cleanser’.

    • Oh do store it up for when you want a reliably good thriller-ish read with more heft to it than average. I’d love to know what you think – promise me you’ll let me know one way or another!

    • I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re quite right. It feels like Yvonne is in touch with her desires and possibilities all the way through, she’s being careful that no one gets hurt. But everyone does nevertheless and that makes the book very powerful.

  2. It sounds like a good read, but just once I’d like a woman who is sexual to go unscathed! Ironically while I was writing that Google’s autocorrect tried to change the word to “asexual”.

    • Me too! It is such a convention in all forms of narrative that any lapse in female virtue must be met with the most severe punishment. I’d settle for seeing a slap on the wrist! As for Google, ha, that tells us all we need to know.

  3. This sounds good–I was just looking at it wondering if I should request it from the library (even with its shortcomings)–so now I think I will as I certainly am in need of a page turner at the moment. So it sounds like there is no new ground broken here–women always pay for “transgressions”–does the man get off then? Wouldn’t it be nice for once for the woman to get away with it–as is good for her even though she was–and here I was going to say bad, but maybe better to say had a weak moment?

    • It’s difficult, isn’t it? Yvonne certainly does have a lapse of judgement and she makes a big mistake. And ultimately it’s not as if the men escape scot-free. Well, perhaps what makes this book most intriguing is the complicated ethical terrain it gets into. It’s certainly a good read and a page turner, and I would really love to know what you think of it!

  4. Interesting point about women being punished for being sexual… still,, in this day and age! It would be interesting for someone to do a study about this to see how much things have changed… someone somewhere must have done this?

    • You’d think some graduate on the literary/psychology./sociology borderline would give it a shot, wouldn’t you! There was a rash of books about gender that came out a few years back and I never got around to reading them – I should! They’d be interesting in any case, and I used to love my feminist studies in college.

  5. A well written page turner is always welcome but it’s a
    shame that a woman novelist seems to have taken the predictable route with female sexuality. The cleaning cupboard reference made me smirk, I’m afraid – shades of Bjorn Borg!

    • Oh the cleaning cupboard! It’s sort of awful, and Yvonne is aware of that, and the sordid nature of it all, but unable to stop herself. In a way, that’s some of the most interesting part – the rationalisations. It’s only the excessive punishment as a trope that bothers me, but then, who’s to say that this isn’t exactly what would happen in a court of law today? I did feel that Louise Doughty had done her research. I would love to know what you make of a book like this.

  6. Hm, I shall bear that moral in mind the next time I see a man near a cupboard… It sounds an entertaining read though. Do you think that it was Louise Doughty’s intention to show that women are unfairly punished for transgressive sexual desires, or is she just reaffirming that trope? I wonder, are there any novels where women get away with being ‘wicked’, female Tom Ripleys for instance?

    • What an interesting idea, a female Tom Ripley. I’d be very curious to read such a book and see what my reaction was…. I suppose Lady Macbeth comes close? (my Shakespeare knowledge is woeful, I have to admit). I’m not entirely sure where the author stood on it all, I guess if anything it was to plot the unstoppable downfall of a woman who tried to experiment with danger. Your comment about cupboards made me laugh – yes, they are clearly danger zones that need better signposting! 🙂

  7. I agree with those comments about how women are still doomed to be on the receiving end of punishment for expressing their sexuality and I do think that appears to be more of an issue in novels than in reality but perhaps I’m kidding myself about society as a whole.

    I’ll note your advice too 🙂

    • I’d love for someone with a specialism in criminal law to read this book and pass a professional opinion! I did feel that Louise Doughty had done her research – there’s the ring of authenticity to all she writes. It would be most intriguing to know. Oh you tom cats! Better safe than sorry, as they say. 🙂

  8. This is next but one on the pile and I’m even more keen to read it now than I was before – if only to find out why it’s important that she is wearing new boots 🙂

    • It was! I did very much enjoy reading it, and in retrospect, that difficult territory around ethics and gender was part of the interest. It’s definitely one of those books you want to discuss!

  9. I absolutely loved this book, for similar reasons. I also loved that it was a middle-aged woman having a sexual awakening, and totally believed the characters and the pull she had for that man. Also what a fine line so many of us tread between order and disaster. It was exciting and utterly engrossing. I haven’t read anything else by Doughty but will for sure.

    • Yes, I completely agree with you. The way Doughty portrays the lure of the relationship is wholly convincing, and I love what you say about the fine line between order and disaster. I’d never read anything by her before – she’s certainly worth reading again.

  10. I’ve read another of her novels, which I liked very much. I’m glad this worked for you. With some minor reservations, but still. I pretty sure, I’ll like it as well.

  11. Once again you’ve brought to light a book I hadn’t heard of but now want to read. The structure sounds a little like Defending Jacob…the reader knows something’s gone wrong, but has to wait to find out what that something is.

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