What happens when a woman makes one spectacularly bad choice? In Yvonne Carmichael’s case it leads to several other spectacularly bad choices and she ends up accused and on trial at the Old Bailey. I have read several other reviews of this book and many people seem to think Yvonne is unbalanced or unbelievable, but I certainly did not see her that way. She tells the story to us in stages, only revealing part of the truth, just like real people do. How many times have you played down something you did that you thought was wrong, or embellished something you did to make yourself sound like a better person? It isn’t exactly lying, but it isn’t exactly telling the truth, at least not the whole truth. That is what Yvonne, the main character does in Apple Tree Yard, does. And the final truth, when it comes, is stunning. It is not often that I am surprised.
Yvonne is fifty-two and she is on the downward slide in her career. She and her husband are cordial, but not intimate. She meets a mysterious man who works for the government. He has a few honesty issues, too. She does something she never expected to do, begin an affair. I do not want to spoil the book by giving away the story, but I think that Louis Doughty captures the ennui of middle age quite fantastically. One of my favorite quotations is when Yvonne writes about her work on her PhD. She and her husband, Guy, are both scientists. She says, ”Guy completed his PhD in three years and mine took seven. Funny that.” Later this is explained, “This was something he never understood: yes, he would give me time to work when I demanded it, but my time was considered to belong to our family unit unless I signaled that I wanted out. His time was considered to belong to himself and his work unless I demanded that he opt in.” This is probably the most succinct explanation of the dilemma of working women of a certain age I have ever seen. Younger women have men who view family life totally differently, but for the generation between the 1970s and now, those women who are currently middle aged, this is the reality. It is nice to have that acknowledged and written out loud. Yvonne isn’t unbalanced or unrealistic. She is realistic to a fault. She makes an error in judgment that has repercussions she could never have imagined, and that is what makes a great story that I could hardly stand to put down. That and wonderful writing.
UPDATE: There is a 4-part Hulu series based on the book that is quite good.