Sadly, that combination didn’t play out as Stan and Joy had hoped. As the siblings become adults, disappointments and dysfunction abound, with family members volleying grievances across the Sunday lunch table as fast and furious as their home-court matches of old. Stan and Joy had their own troubled upbringings, but there are a few positive associations, including Grandma’s apple crumble, a dessert so legendary the Delaneys have tried for years to find a reproduction of the one Stan’s late mother used to make. (“Trust the old bag to never share her secret recipe,” Joy thinks. “One day someone would work out the missing single ingredient and then she’d be properly dead.”)
Metaphor alert! The Delaney family will soon crumble, too. After Stan and Joy offer shelter to Savannah, a stranger who shows up at their doorstep disheveled and bleeding, the siblings sense a scam. Their parents play strong doubles, though, insisting Savannah is “staying with us for as long as she wants.” But when Joy disappears on Valentine’s Day, it’s Stan everyone suspects, and “everyone” includes their children.
Moriarty excels in unpeeling characters’ psyches, and here she begins with those twitchy, angry children, their individual relationships with their hard-driving “tennis parents” a source of seething angst for all. Even paterfamilias Stan has a tennis loss that rankles: a onetime top seed named Harry Haddad who ditched the family for another coach.
But if there’s one character with whom the author succeeds, it’s 69-year-old Joy, who has, like many women of her boomer generation, tried to be everything to everybody and now feels like she succeeded at nothing. “ ‘Regret’ can be my memoir’s theme, she thought, as she tried to shove the cheese grater into the dishwasher next to the frying pan. A Regretful Life by Joy Delaney.” Her husband and children raged around her, expecting her to pick up the pieces every time — and she did. As the Delaney siblings, Amy, Brooke, Logan and Troy, try to discover what happened to their mother, readers learn how essential she was to her family, especially to Stan, who lurches around his house after her disappearance like a wounded bear.
If Moriarty stumbles at all in this story, it’s at the end when she brings us back into Savannah’s orbit, where things get overlong and a bit convoluted. That’s a shame, because it’s also when we learn what the title is all about, a powerful reminder that parental love and attention do matter over time. Moriarty does know how to combine a family saga with a mystery; she’s done it before (e.g. “The Husband’s Secret”). What she has more trouble with may be balancing hope with hopelessness, never an easy task.
But that lapse isn’t all that important. Moriarty tells a great story, understands her characters and cares about them, too. Readers who have kept up with her books will adore “Apples Never Fall,” and readers just discovering Moriarty will seek out her previous titles after savoring this fresh, juicy tale.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
Apples Never Fall
By Liane Moriarty
Henry Holt and Co. 480 pp. $28.99