Book review: Apple Tree Yard

Apple Tree Yard

By Louise Doughty

Yvonne Carmichael, the central character in Doughty’s gripping novel, is a married 52-year-old British geneticist on trial for murder alongside her lover, a man she doesn’t know half as well as she thinks she does. Recounted in first person, often through emails Yvonne writes at night to “Mr. X,” Apple Tree Yard traces how a woman who describes herself as possessing “status and gravitas” ends up in such an unlikely plight. More, it offers harrowing proof of how a series of bad decisions can easily amount to catastrophe. Yvonne is a familiar fiction trope—an educated, older woman able to describe herself wryly, if self-consciously, as wearing the sort of slightly showy boots “a middle-aged woman wears because they make her feel less like a middle-aged woman.” Married to a fellow scientist with whom she has two grown children, one of whom is bipolar, Yvonne has lived long enough to know success, experience sorrow and crave the sort of tantalizing promise offered by a furtive affair. “Sex with you is like being eaten by a wolf,” she writes to her lover, a man whose identity, the reader slowly learns, has been shaped by what Yvonne wants to believe.

Still, she cleaves to her identity as a scientist seeking empirical knowledge: “DNA made me and DNA undid me. DNA is God,” she asserts. But as Doughty’s taut, sometimes shocking narrative plumbs the lower depths of betrayal, it’s apparent the truth is thornier. (An anecdote about a scientific experiment involving a mother chimp and her baby will haunt readers for days.) Doughty’s seventh novel is a unique hybrid—a riveting courtroom drama, an engaging exploration of ideas, and a harrowing exposé of human nature, or, as Yvonne puts it, “the stories we tell in order to make sense of ourselves, to ourselves.” The book is a triumph. Every page bristles with menace.

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