Ethere is a lot that listens. Cafe waiters eavesdrop behind their order pillows; baristas over the hissing of the espresso machine. Detergents dry secrets in house after house. Uber drivers can not fail to overhear; also pedicurists. And loyal hairdressers have decades of stories to share – all the tactile intimacy.
In Liane Moriarty’s new novel, Apples Do Not Fall, a mystery unfolds in the excerpt and the whisper – a presumed murder, a missing corpse – but each witness has his own story: exams to sit, bills to pay, Tinder tribes to preen for , the loneliness of the widows. They hear what they hear because in service work they are treated as invisible – just as inactive and functional as furniture. Our loose cast may not notice them, but Moriarty certainly does.
Moriarty has an eye for gentrified grotesque questions: retail centers crushed like Tuscan villages (“at least the fake cobblestones did not catch heels like real cobblestones”); remembrance classes where women in “tailored pants and pearl earrings” make up stories about woe on creamy new stationery; green streets patrolled by designer dogs and double strollers as expensive as cars. There’s a reason she’s the exaggerated queen of the Sydney suburb.
Until this novel – her ninth – I knew Moriarty’s books only after the reputation and buzz of prestige TV adaptations of Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers: Nicole Kidman in various shades of distance. When the galley of apples did not fall landed on my doorstep with its 500 pages wallop, I was ready for a tale of lily-white prosperity and its discontent: weapon-based gossip, class frictions, and the occasional untimely death; perhaps views of the harbor. Moriarty’s trademarks are certainly present, but there is something else in here – something quiet and connected – that is overshadowed by her book’s more blissful embellishments.
In a neighborhood of “nicely modulated voices” and manicured gardens, aspiring grandmother and fearsome double-player Joy Delaney has disappeared. Her husband Stan is suspiciously scratched up. He blames a vengeful hedge, but the neighbors — ears that were always stung — heard the couple quarrel the night before she disappeared. For more than 40 years, Joy and Stan ran the local tennis school (“Joy made the money and Stan made the stars”) while cheerfully producing four huge, tennis-crazy kids (now embittered, tennis-loving adults). But the couple has recently retired, and relieved of all their hectic obligations, their marriage has slowed down. “Maybe every marriage had secret cracks that could turn into gaps,” Moriarty ponders. Or maybe the characters were there all the time.
The Delaney family is a magnificent snare of fidelity and complaints, unresolved wounds, and wear and tear between generations. There is the laughing Stanling who once discovered a Grand Slam champion, only to be thrown aside when the kid hit the big time; and the eternally fragile sibling-blue-haired Amy, morally smooth Troy, pathologically laid-back Logan and Brooke with an e-not one of them a tennis prodigy, nor able to forget it. Joy is forever in the middle, her fry’s peacekeeping boss. She could have reached Wimbledon, but sacrificed her talent on the family altar.
When Moriarty plunges us down at the dinner table, her sides are pyrotechnic. The author transforms a Father’s Day lunch into a delicious theatrical centerpiece – a buffet of battered egos. There are quarrels at the Olympic level, a duel with chocolate brown. Every short Delaney fuse lights up and burns, and we can only wait to see who will detonate first. All that emotional grenade whizzing past our ears. But the farce slips into the horror of the house: As the days turn into weeks with no sign of joy, the children have to contend with the harsher likelihood that their father has murdered their mother. “Sometimes when she retrieved a funny memory from their shared childhood,” reflects the eldest Delaney daughter, Amy, “it was not so funny.”
If Moriarty had kept the aperture narrowed – a portrait of a family torn apart by new suspicions and old rivalries – Apple’s Don’t Fall would have been a subtle tale of daily violence. The way women are gradually eroded; ways men are taught to exploit their rage. All the ecstasies and atrocities of elite sports (not to mention the aspiring parents). But Moriarty envelops her family in a more glamorous mystery: a young woman arrives at the doorstep of Delaney in the dark at night, bruised, bloody, and in need of shelter. Great revelations brew; ornate revenge.
It’s a restless, wandering subplot who sadly relies on a tiring and damaging shock tactic: a vixenish schemer who cries wolf and lays down his claim of violence in intimate partner (“another girl’s awful truth at the heart of her awful lie”) . That Moriarty’s characters know the tropics well – and trust their interlops more easily because of it – makes it even more grotesque and lazy.
Apple’s Don’t Fall ends up feeling indulgently drowned out, like an ornate cafe breakfast designed to be Instagrammed rather than eaten. It’s all fully readable, but it’s hard not to want anything more from someone who’s so cleverly smart. “If Joy had been young and beautiful,” Moriarty had written, “the street would have crawled with journalists.” Since she is a woman in her 60s, the case simmers like a minor neighbor scandal. It’s hard not to feel, at such a clumsy grafting of Joy’s story into a young, teasing stranger, Moriarty has done exactly the same thing.