Constant Reader Book of the Month Club May
Apples Never Fall and Lianne Moriarty’s look at Mothers
There are three different factors that have led me to choose Apples Must Fall for May: the fact that it’s Mother’s Day, the fact that I am one of Lianne Moriarty’s biggest fans and the recent attention — Will Smith notwithstanding — of King Richard.
Let’s take the last reason first. What if you were the parents of not just two tennis crazy siblings but four? What if both parents had been tennis mad when they were young but never made it big? And what if your children never quite had what it took the go all the way? What would you do with all that energy — and how much would it affect your relationship with her children and your family? That is one of the major questions at the center of Lianne Moriarty’s most recent novel Apples Never Fall.
Now anyone who has been following my blog from the beginning knows that I am a huge Moriarty fan. Full disclosure: that didn’t begin until Big Little Lies debuted on HBO back in 2017, though I was able to hold off reading the book until after the miniseries concluded. In typical fashion, I became obsessed with the work of Moriarty and have read every novel she has written to date. I can appreciate the fundamental differences between her version of Big Little Lies and David E. Kelley’s adaptation and could similarly approve of the adaptation he had done to Nine Perfect Strangers last year for Hulu. I’ve also read everything in between and can heartily recommend books that are less like to be adapted such as The Hypnotist’s Daughter and What She Forgot. Like Kelley’s previous adaptations, I could see a world where Apples Never Fall could be Americanized for a limited series (though I’m not sure if there would be a role for Nicole Kidman in this one) Many of the themes in this book are very critical to the American psyche — the drive to be the best, what makes a good marriage, the relationships between siblings and how the scars of ones parents can be passed down to their children, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. Before that happens though, let’s look at how Apples fits in with the Australian mindset.
Apples Never Fall centers on the Delaneys. The father is Stan, the mother is Joy. When the novel begins they have been married for half a century. They were once aspiring tennis players, but neither could make it professionally. So they became coaches. They had four children: Amy, Roger, Troy and Brooke. All of them were gifted players too, all trained hard as children, but none of them could make it all the way either. All have grown up, but none have moved on.
Stan and Joy were considered a happy couple and a bulwark of the small Australian town they grew up. Everyone loved them and admired them — most of them love watching them play doubles together for decades. Now they’ve sold the school and are easing into retirement. Well, maybe not ‘easing’. They don’t seem to enjoy traveling as much and Joy in particular is finding trouble filling the days — she’s taking a memoir writing class as the novel begins, and having an immense amount of time filling the pages. Like so many mothers, she keeps hoping for the day she’ll become a grandmother — something that keeps seeming increasingly unlikely as the novel begins.
All of the Delaney children are deeply flawed. A large part of it is no doubt that that none of them have been able to properly fill the void that did with tennis. Amy is the oldest, but has spent most of her adult life suffering from crippling anxiety that has hindered professionally and relationship-wise — she’s the oldest sibling, but everyone treats her as the baby. Roger is a college instructor who doesn’t seem content in his job. He’s been in a relationship for five years with India, which is petering out as the novel begins. Troy is the most successful career-wise, but no one in the family can understand the nature of his job. He’s always been the most impulsive of the group; indeed his marriage ended when he chose to have a one night stand and then told his wife about it. He is facing a major decision with his ex-wife when the novel begins. Brooke has suffered her entire adult life from crippling migraines, and while she has a relatively successful practice as a chiropractor, her own marriage is breaking up as the novel starts.
Underlying all of this is news that is trouble to the Delaney clan. Harry Haddad, a tennis legend who the Delaneys once coached until an undisclosed incident led to him changing coaches when he was still a teenager, is mounting a professional comeback. He’s about to play at Wimbledon and he’s also in the process of writing a memoir. All of the Delaneys are nervous about that, though none of them for quite the same reason.
Into Stan and Joy’s life one night comes Savannah, a thirtyish woman who claims to have taken a cab and knocked on their doors because her boyfriend beat her that night. Joy and Stan welcome her in for the night…and then she becomes a more or less permanent resident, cooking for Stan and Joy every night. Both are happy with the state of affairs, Joy in particular, and when the children all show up for Father’s Day understandably suspicious she seems more annoyed with them than having any doubt in Joy.
Now I have to tell you that Apples Never Fall unfolds on two timelines. One of them describes more or less the actions that I have described. The other takes a few months in the future when Joy Delaney has been reporting missing by the Delaney children. We meet one more character that is critical to the story: Detective Inspector Christina Khoury. Christina, like many police, is suspicious by nature. She spends most of the novel thinking she is Sherlock Holmes, where it becomes increasingly clear the longer Apples continues that she’s actually Lestrade or one of the countless Scotland Yard Inspectors that Holmes would show up at the beginning of the story to save them from themselves.
Have I given away too much? Not really. Because while Apples is about what happened to Joy in a sense, it’s also to a greater extent about the Delaney children and so many of the illusions that they have spent their lives living under. None of them want to believe that their mother is dead, but the longer she is missing the more likely it appears. None of them want to even consider what becomes a possibility the longer the novel goes on — that Stan may have killed his wife.
Apples is listed on the book jacket as the story of a match between the Delaney children and their views of their parents. In actuality much like Big Little Lies, it shows the story of what a happy marriage looks like and what it actually is. The Delaneys perfect, like so many others, had cracks under the surface. And the appearance of Savannah, who as the children are right to suspect, causes them to fragment and then blow up.
There will be some readers who will no doubt look at the relationship between Savannah and Joy and find Joy hopelessly naïve when it comes to Savannah, especially when the web of lies that Savannah is spinning become revealed and she nevertheless stays loyal to her. I actually found that this was logical when you consider the character of Joy. Joy has spent her entire life taking care of people, her children, her students and her husband. We learn that she never had the best maternal influence. There is a very real possibility that Savannah is the first person in her entire life that has ever taken care of her without question. Even when Savannah tells her at a critical juncture: “I’m not a nice person”, Joy refuses to accept it even though she should know better by now.
Perhaps that is why I chose Apples Never Fall as my novel for May. We spend a lot of time giving lip service to the jobs mothers must do without really understanding the sacrifices they’ve made over the years and decades. (I think the fact that Moriarty chose to have a critical dinner happen at Father’s Day and not deal with Mother’s Day at all was deliberate.) Joy Delaney has spent her life relentlessly, sacrificing everything for her children, and at one critical point in the novel, chose them over her husband. She desperately tries to keep that charade going even when its clear things are falling apart in her family. But that’s the thing. A child would much rather believe the illusion rather than the reality. This becomes critically clear in the novel’s final pages when we learn the true nature of the characters and how that character’s experience with Joy may have changed them for the better, even if they’re still using it for their own ends.
One last thing. It is not my place to tell you the fate of Joy Delaney in this review. (Though honestly if you’ve read enough of Moriarty’s work, you’ll know that she’s never been much for doom and gloom, Big Little Lies being a key exception.) But I will say one thing for all the senior citizens out there. If you don’t own a cell phone, reading Apples Never Fall will absolutely convince you how essential it is. And don’t buy a flip phone. Go for an iPhone with all the settings — especially an enhanced keyboard. Your kids will thank you for it.