Relationships are about stories, not truth

Apple Tree Yard
by Louise Doughty

This got lots of great reviews when it came out, which is how it came to be on my shelves but it wasn’t until my Twitter stream was full of responses to the recent BBC adaptation that I decided to read it.

I remember the reviews gave me a sense that this was different from the standard crime novel in some way, and they were right, but even now I struggle a little to put my finger on the exact difference. It wasn’t quite what I expected.

For starters, the actual crime is held back until late in the story. The first half of the book builds up tension while filling in the back story. Biologist Dr Yvonne Carmichael has just given evidence to a Select Committee in the Houses of Parliament when she bumps into an attractive stranger who offers to show her the private chapel. Thus begins their affair. But while they are both married, it isn’t clear for a long time exactly what crime this leads to, or why the book’s prologue has Yvonne being questioned in a criminal court.

“Relationships are about stories, not truth. Alone, as individuals, we each have our own personal mythologies, the stories we tell in order to make sense of ourselves to ourselves. That generally works fine as long as we stay sane and single but the minute you enter an intimate relationship with another person there is an automatic dissonance between your story about yourself, and their story about you.”

The other unusual element is that Yvonne is 52 and her lover, who for the first half of the novel is called only Mr X or “you”, is also middle-aged. Yvonne is respectable, a scientist, practical, aware that her life until now has been predictable. They agree early on that they are not looking for a parachute out of their marriages. “Mr X” is mysterious, cagey about his job and likes the thrill of sex in public places. But it all seems rather harmless until stuff suddenly starts to happen.

And then it all slows down again and the remainder of the novel is a courtroom drama. There are a few twists, and it’s very readable, yet I didn’t power through as fast as I expected. Although I did feel some element of suspense, I wasn’t really on tenterhooks.

Partly the problem was that I didn’t much like Yvonne or Mr X. I did like that she was a scientist, a respected one in a senior position, but besides her job, her adult children and her affair, there seems to be nothing else in her life. She has no hobbies or interests. She obsesses about Mr X like a teenager experiencing her first love. Even if that’s a fair reflection of normality, I still found it irritating.

“Maybe this is all it is: the price we pay for what we do is proportionate. Maybe all that endless summer amounted to was the inverse of the heady spring you and I had spent together: the secrecy and excitement of what we did, the exhilaration – and yes, the joy, the joy of doing something that wasn’t wise or logical, merely desired. Then I had to pay. You go into a shop for an ice cream, you have to give the man behind the counter some money. It’s really not difficult.”

This was well written, avoiding cliches and included details that felt well researched. But I wasn’t gripped, which seems like it should be the first requirement in a thriller. I will watch the TV show – I’m curious if it achieves what the book didn’t for me.

Published 2013 by Faber and Faber.

Source: Charity shop.