Originally published 2021
If your mother was missing, would you tell the police? Even if the most obvious suspect was your father? This is the dilemma facing the four grown Delaney siblings.
The Delaneys are fixtures in their community. The parents, Stan and Joy, are the envy of all of their friends. They’re killers on the tennis court, and off it their chemistry is palpable. But after fifty years of marriage, they’ve finally sold their famed tennis academy and are ready to start what should be the golden years of their lives. So why are Stan and Joy so miserable?
The four Delaney children―Amy, Logan, Troy, and Brooke―were tennis stars in their own right, yet as their father will tell you, none of them had what it took to go all the way. But that’s okay, now that they’re all successful grown-ups and there is the wonderful possibility of grandchildren on the horizon.
One night a stranger named Savannah knocks on Stan and Joy’s door, bleeding after a fight with her boyfriend. The Delaneys are more than happy to give her the small kindness she sorely needs. If only that was all she wanted.
Later, when Joy goes missing, and Savannah is nowhere to be found, the police question the one person who remains: Stan. But for someone who claims to be innocent, he, like many spouses, seems to have a lot to hide. Two of the Delaney children think their father is innocent, two are not so sure―but as the two sides square off against each other in perhaps their biggest match ever, all of the Delaneys will start to reexamine their shared family history in a very new light.
From time to time I have to begin a post about a book with a reminder that Mysteries Ahoy! is a blog that exists primarily to consider novels and short story collections through the lens of the mystery and suspense genres. This is never intended to be a negative note but rather to acknowledge at the outset that I will ultimately be assessing a book in the context of a genre and the expectations that come with it and sometimes that may be, unfairly, to a work’s detriment. I think that certainly applies in the case of Liane Moriarty’s Apples Never Fall.
The divide between genre fiction and literary fiction can sometimes feel a little artificial and often comes down to perceptions of artistic value. It will surprise no one to read that I do not regard genre fiction as inferior or less artistically valid than literary fiction – rather I think that it simply conveys some expectations that the reader can have with a book about the experience that they are likely to have reading it.
Apples Never Fall is a work that contains some significant mystery elements. It is the story of a woman’s inexplicable disappearance from her family home, the exploration of the past in search of the truth, and an examination of family relationships to try to find a motive for murder. We have formal investigators working the case, interrogations, speculations about guilt, and ultimately an airing of secrets. Yet structurally it also diverges from the form in a crucial way that means that those coming to this hoping to play armchair detective and solve a mysterious situation are likely to feel a bit short-changed.
Discussion of why those readers approaching this purely from a genre perspective are likely to be disappointed is tricky as the reasons are buried in final few chapters of the story. To discuss them even vaguely or try to identify analogous titles, risks spoiling the book’s conclusion which, naturally, I don’t want to do. I think the book’s conclusion works when considered in the context of the book’s themes and structure and do not want to suggest that it is a weakness in any respect other than as an example of the mystery genre itself.
Okay, enough foreword (seriously, it’s threatening to become about half of this post) – let’s discuss Apples Never Fall.
The book concerns the disappearance of Joy Delaney from her family home. For years Joy and Stan Delaney, both skilled tennis players, had run a successful academy together. Joy would take care of the bookkeeping while Stan coached the players, including their four children who were also each great players though none ended up competing at the highest levels for reasons we discover in the course of the novel. Now the pair have sold that business and are struggling to adjust to retired life together.
The sudden disappearance of Joy from the home is accompanied by an oddly worded text to her four adult children and when a piece of evidence is discovered in the home by their cleaner a week later, the police become involved. The investigation ends up dividing the siblings, each reacting to it differently. Some however question whether it may have been linked to a previous incident in their parents’ lives from months earlier in which they let a mysterious young woman into their home who seemed to quickly embed herself into their lives.
Let’s tackle the two mysterious elements chronologically starting with the stranger, Savannah. Of the two storylines I found this to be the more intriguing, even if it is not ultimately the focal point of the novel. That is partly because several of the Delaney children suspect that there may be a link between the two incidents which confers upon it a greater degree of mystery than if we were simply reading this sequentially. I think the other reason is that there are several different possible interpretations to where this part of the story might be headed that I think Moriarty does a good job of balancing.
Questions raised by this story thread include is Savannah really who she claims to be? Is she being truthful in her story about the events that led her to knock on the Delaney’s door? Are her actions helping out in the Delaney home really just repaying them for their kindness or is this a way of making them dependent on her? Is this a prelude to some act of exploitation? And, most importantly, how and why is she not still present in the Delaney home at the time of the disappearance?
It also helps that this part of the novel also contains one of the strongest sequences in the novel: the really uncomfortable Father’s Day brunch. This occurs a short while after Savannah has arrived and the children are struggling with the idea of this stranger in their parents’ home. During the meal they try to figure out her deal but end up revealing quite a bit about their own lives too. The centerpiece of this part of the story though is a really powerful and perhaps unsettling exchange in which Stan slowly dissects the characters of each of his children through a detailed examination of their tennis careers. This is not only a really dramatic moment in the story, it also reveals a huge amount about both them and him in a way that feels really true to each of their characters.
Moriarty’s character work is the great strength of this novel and I really appreciated the complexity given to the characters of each of the children. The four clearly share some similar, familial traits yet each is distinctive and are living quite different lives as adults. I was particularly taken with the way Moriarty uses their relationship with the sport to illustrate aspects of who they were, who they are now and the values they hold while the conflicts they each face in their lives are similarly distinctive and credible.
Similarly the relationship between Joy and Stan is really layered and complex. As we explore the events of the past six months, we learn more about the stresses and strains that have built up within that relationship. I found it interesting to see those tensions build, and see how the conflicts would play out whether expressed directly or, more often, indirectly. Once again the crucial description here is that the character work feels very credible and I appreciated that Moriarty avoids giving us an easy, direct read on them and where their stories are headed until shortly before the end.
The only weak link here for me in terms of the credibility of the characterization was that of Savannah. There were aspects of her story that certainly surprised me in ways that I found quite satisfying, yet there are also some parts of her story that I found less convincing, at least in relation to an important aspect of her past that is linked to her character’s motivation. On the other hand, some of her actions are really interesting and while I may have found the destination a little underwhelming, I found the journey to reach it to be an interesting one.
The mystery about what happened to Joy is, in contrast, does not provide quite the same degree of variety in terms of its ideas and story beats. It would, of course, be unrealistic for the police to focus on anyone other than Stan in the circumstances that Moriarty establishes and while I think there are some surprises in the final explanation, I do not find the ending particularly satisfying as a resolution to this mystery plot. On a thematic and character level however, when you disregard any expectations of this as a mystery novel, that ending feels far more satisfying.
The Verdict: If you approach Apples Never Fall purely as a work of mystery fiction you may find its resolution underwhelming. That would be unfortunate as Moriarty’s characterization and development of theme here is superb and makes this a really rich and interesting examination of a family in crisis.