Remarks: Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard
02 Apr 2014
First, a reminder. These are remarks, not a review. The difference? By calling them "remarks" I can take shelter behind the Stein-Hemingway Theorem: "Remarks are not literature." Thus protected, I don't feel the need to spend hours polishing these remarks, nor am I obligated to recap the novel. These are just my remarks. Major spoilers are avoided in what follows.
Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard begins with a bang and continues apace. The plot is an ingeniously constructed variant of The Prisoner's Dilemma, though here it is a woman and her lover who stand accused, making the situation all the more fraught. The novel is a good read for the plot alone, but Doughty populates it with well-rounded, interesting characters whose lives touch on deep issues of modern life. This is a literary page-turner with depth and richness.
The main character is Yvonne Carmichael, Ph.D., an academic geneticist in London. Of note, she is 52 years old, married, and the parent of two adult children: not the expected protagonist of a "sexy thriller" (though the novel is much more than that), but why the hell not?
In the first pages of the book we learn that Yvonne has cheated on her husband with an initially mysterious man. The manner of their first adulterous liaison strains credulity, but its unusual nature is acknowledged by Yvonne. And if that first encounter is accepted, what develops from there (i.e., the rest of the book) is entirely plausible, and the initial encounter takes on symbolic significance.
Yvonne is both a compelling character and a believable one. For example, her profession (a scientist) clearly influences her thinking, but doesn't dominate it. In more crudely constructed tales, the main character's profession either has no apparent connection with how they think, or nearly all of their thoughts are a function of their occupation. Here, a realistic balance is struck, as is Yvonne's balance between being sensible (often) and not (sometimes).
More generally, in fact, Doughty's characters are well-rounded and real. None of the main characters bear the stamp of Central Casting, as each has their own peculiarities and their own trajectory. The lone exception, in my view, is Susannah, Yvonne's ostensible best friend, who seemed to exist mostly because it would be odd for Yvonne to lack a close friend.
Most of the "twists" in the plot don't feel like the usual twists, where the author imposes them on the narrative in order to keep the reader’s interest. Here, things don't always work out as the characters expect, but matters stay well within the bounds of believability, with little or no sense that the author is yanking rabbits out of a hat. The exception is the final "twist" of the book, a revelation in the final pages that struck me as unnecessary. It changes our perception of certain important characters, but not in a way that is especially consistent with what we know of them. In other words, my reaction upon encountering that final twist was not, "oh, of course, it needed to be that way." Instead, it felt arbitrary, its main function seemingly to provide an ending twist.
For me, it felt like the real ending of the novel was the verdict in the court case. The material that followed struck me as an extended epilogue, its length dissipating much of the impact of the verdict. While some loose ends probably did need to be tied up, I would have liked to seen it done in fewer words. To be fair, though, I read the novel in the course of a single afternoon and evening, so it might just have been me that was fading at the end.
Ms. Doughty clearly did her research for this novel as, for example, her portrayal of genetics and the day-to-day activities of academic scientists is on point (the latter is, in my estimation, the more difficult knowledge to acquire). The results of her research are incorporated in a nearly seamless fashion without lapsing into the "hey, look at these cool facts I found while doing my research" mode found in more than few novels touching on technical topics.
The exception is her research on the holding cells at the Old Bailey courthouse. Her descriptions of them do add a theatrical element, something almost Dickensian, with perhaps some symbolism thrown in to boot (e.g., the character in question has to go from the subterranean holding cells up into the well-lit courtroom). But the justification for the character being there in the first place is very thin, as the revocation of bail seems almost entirely without basis. And after the character's bail is revoked, there is scant attention given to the time spent in the actual prison as opposing the holding cells, though the former would seemingly make the greater impression. Personally, I would have liked the symbolism and resonance of the character travelling in to the courthouse from the outskirts of London, a journey the character had previously made for two rather different purposes. Even so, an argument can be made that the interest added by the holding cells merited tossing the character in prison, even on a fairly flimsy pretext.
While many comparisons are possible, I found Apple Tree Yard reminiscent of some of Tom Stoppard's work in two ways.
First, Apple Tree Yard touches on a plethora of topics. Genetic tendencies, DNA, gender roles at home and at work, parenting, infidelity and marriage, loyalty, the legal system, storytelling, and the nature of truth all play a part in this novel. These different angles, as in Stoppard's best work, are woven together to form an organic whole. It's more of a well-crafted stew than a series of discrete tapas dishes, and provides the reader with a variety of issues to think about.
Second, Apple Tree Yard subscribes to what I'd call the "Fair Fight" doctrine: as much as possible, the opposing characters/elements in the novel are given strong arguments for their position. Many authors succumb to the natural temptation to rig conflicts in favor of their preferred position, or are unable to see the other side of the coin, and the result is often akin to professional wrestling. Here, there are no simple villains and no strawman arguments. I was reminded of Stoppard's Arcadia where at one point Stoppard stages a debate between two characters over literature versus science (I'm oversimplifying) with both sides acquitting themselves well.
For example, the closest approach to a villain in Apple Tree Yard perpetrates an act which all reasonable people condemn, but is still rendered as a rounded character, a person who is often reasonable and fits in well amongst friends and colleagues. The character isn't really different from someone you might plausibly know (which, I suspect, is part of the point). And what happens to them as a result of their vile act raises the question of whether they deserved such an outcome. So even with an issue where all reasonable people are presumably on the same side, the other side is rendered with intelligence and insight in an effort to understand (but not excuse) how a not-radically-and-thoroughly-evil person might come to commit such an act.
Another example is the main character's adultery. Doughty presents it as neither clearly wrong nor clearly justified. In fact, a decent case could be constructed for either position given the facts of the situation, the characters, and their past. It makes Apple Tree Yard a far more compelling novel than those which stack the deck to make it obvious where the reader's sympathies are supposed to lie.
Even the title is layered and thoughtful. Apple Tree Yard explicitly refers to one location central to the story, but subtly references a second location, and much of the novel hinges on the dynamic strain of the main character vibrating between those two locations (or, really, between what each location represents).
The presence of a compelling plot that intersects with a trial has led some reviewers to label this a "courtroom drama." The label is an awkward fit for this novel, as most of it is concerned with events that precede the involvement of the justice system. The trial is used more as a framing device, and to make certain conflicts explicit, but the lawyers and judge are not key players.
The presence of a recognizable and interesting plot has also led to Doughty's novel being subjected to "the genre treatment" by some reviewers (see, for example, here). I usually refer all arguments regarding genre to the remarkable Ms. LeGuin, and will largely do so in this case.
However, the review by Charles Finch merits some mention, since he explicitly recognizes the genre question as a species of bear-baiting and has clearly thought carefully about this issue. Even so, Finch states that, "The fact is that, like all genre fiction, its main duty is the reader's entertainment, and few books written chiefly for entertainment can successfully hide that motivation, or wholly transcend it." My question is: how does he know that Apple Tree Yard was written chiefly for entertainment? Or that another novel was not? Such claims would seem to require, at a minimum, evidence that entertainment considerations crowded out deeper insights.
I see no such evidence in Apple Tree Yard. It's a bountiful harvest. Read it.
Disclaimer: Beyond exchanging a few tweets, I have no personal connection to Ms. Doughty. I have no personal stake in the success of Apple Tree Yard. This review was entirely unsolicited and I purchased my own copy of the book. This website takes no advertising, does not accept donations, and is entirely non-commercial.