From the outside, Joy Delaney has a perfect life. She and her husband Stan still seem desperately in love after almost a half century of marriage. Their tennis academy has been successful enough to allow them both to retire comfortably. Whilst they have their challenges, the four grown Delaney children appear (relatively) healthy, and (relatively) happy.
But that’s just from the outside. One day, Joy vanishes, and – thanks to the suspicious scratches on his face – Stan becomes suspect number one. Savannah, a mysterious houseguest who had appeared and disappeared a few months earlier, may hold the real answer to the puzzle. Baffled and alarmed, the Delaney children attempt to discover what happened to their mother.
The plotting here may be pretty drawn out, but the main strength of writer Liane Moriarty – author of eight previous novels, including the television-adapted Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers, both starring Nicole Kidman – has always been writing characters that you’re happy to spend time with, and that’s certainly true of the Delaney matriarch. Though some of Joy’s decisions (like allowing a complete stranger to live with her and have access to her credit cards) are distinctly dubious, we can always understand why she makes them. She’s layered and well-drawn enough to make a reader stick around and find out what happened to her, despite some of the book’s less appealing attributes.
Like the Delaney children, who don’t have half the shading of their mother – one has migraines and is uptight, one has anxiety issues and is a free spirit, one is affluent and miserable, one is not affluent and miserable. Okay, so there’s a little more to them than that, but not enough to sustain Apples Never Fall for its nearly five hundred pages. There’s so much overlap between their troubles (divorces and breakups, job dissatisfaction, childhood tennis resentments), that you really start to wonder if there had to be four adult kids? Moriarty could have covered the same thematic ground with three – maybe even two – and kept the story streamlined, and given the siblings more depth. As it is, the chapters from the POVs of the four kids make the novel feel stodgy and static.
The narrative is a mixed bag. The mystery around Savannah is nicely constructed (if a little unbelievable), and provides Apples Never Fall with a coda that takes it almost into horror territory. The mystery over Joyce’s disappearance starts off full of intrigue, but the longer it continues, the more it seems clear that it’s barrelling towards a big anti-climax. Between those two resolutions, we get an unwelcome cameo from the COVID pandemic, which doesn’t have anything to do with anything, and only appears to have been inserted to add an element of timeliness to the proceedings.
Although there’s plenty wrong with Apples Never Fall, there’s just enough right with it for an enterprising producer to craft it into another prestige miniseries – in fact, the TV rights have already been sold. Perhaps the siblings will be more interesting when one of them, inevitably, is played by Nicole Kidman…
Apples Never Fall is published by Michael Joseph on 14 September 2021