52 pages 1 hour read

Liane Moriarty

Apples Never Fall

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


Apples Never Fall (2021), by Australian novelist Liane Moriarty, begins as a mystery thriller: Joy Delaney, a 60-something mother and retired tennis coach, suddenly vanishes on Valentine’s Day, and all signs point to her moody and volatile husband, Stan, himself a former world-renowned tennis coach, as the most likely killer. However, as the days pass and the police continue to search for Joy, the novel evolves into a probing psychological study of a profoundly dysfunctional family. Each of the couple’s four grown children harbors deep grudges and bitter resentments against the parents who dreamed of coaching their kids to be world-class tennis champions.

Moriarty’s ninth novel, Apples Never Fall features provocative and emotional scenes with a cinematic sensibility and a cast of vividly drawn characters in conflict with each other and their pasts. The novel quickly became an international best-seller, and even before its September publication, it was optioned by NBC Universal for a television mini-series.

The study guide uses the first US hardcover edition, published by Henry Holt in 2021.

Content Warning: The source text and this guide discuss domestic violence, child abuse, and mental health conditions, including eating disorders.

Plot Summary

Chapter to chapter, the novel moves between events in the three weeks after Joy’s disappearance on Valentine’s Day and events in the months leading up to her disappearance. For convenience, this guide separates the two timelines.

Joy and Stan Delaney, married close to 50 years, are adjusting to retirement. For four decades, they ran one of Australia’s most respected tennis academies. Their four grown children—Troy, Logan, Amy, and Brooke—were all once promising rising tennis players but have now settled into lives far from sports, finding their own successes (and failures) and handling their own relationships, sometimes stormy, sometimes passionate.

The summer before Joy goes missing, while she and Stan are at home together, they answer a sudden knock at the door and are stunned to find a bloodied and bruised woman there. She identifies herself as Savannah Pagonis and begs for their help—her boyfriend beat her and she has nowhere else to go. For reasons she’s not entirely sure of, Joy takes in the terrified young woman and even offers her one of the children’s old bedrooms—to the chagrin and bewilderment of Stan and their children. The presence of the obviously troubled young woman and Joy’s maternal care for a total stranger spark wounding discussions among the siblings about their upbringing under their father’s authoritarian discipline: He dreamed of coaching them all to professional tennis glory only to see each of those dreams, in turn, collapse of its own irony: Troy was too flashy and volatile on the court; Brooke was crippled by migraines brought on by the stress of competition; Logan drifted, too noncommittal for any success; and Amy allowed too many uncertainties into her head.

Savannah quickly becomes a fixture at the Delaney home, doing all the cooking for the couple. During the Christmas holiday, tempers flare, and the family begins the difficult process of addressing decades-old emotional wounds. Logan checks into Savannah’s background and finds questionable details in her story about a supposedly abusive boyfriend, while Amy discovers that Savannah was briefly involved in an internet scam that involved selling fake tennis memorabilia. Concerned, Joy enters Savannah’s room while she’s out. She makes the startling discovery that Savannah is the sister of retired tennis star Harry Haddad, a protégé whom Stan developed years earlier until Haddad suddenly, inexplicably, left for another coach and subsequently won multiple Grand Slam titles. Under pressure from the family, Savannah confesses that she knew the Delaneys and that she was raised by an abusive mother who literally starved her, trying to mold her into a world-class ballet dancer. She says that she recalls coming to the Delaney house once, desperate for food, when her brother was training and that the family summarily turned her away. Savannah agrees to leave the house—but before she packs, she tells Stan that it was Joy who encouraged young Harry to leave Stan’s academy.

Stan can’t handle this revelation, and for weeks the couple alternates between bitter fights and long periods of silence. On Valentine’s Day, Joy—determined to make a peace offering to Stan—bakes him apple crumble pie, his favorite. Stan, however, blows up over what he now sees as Joy’s deliberate destruction of his coaching career. He walks out, and when he returns—he later tells police—Joy is gone. After several days, the family reports the missing mother, and the police immediately suspect Stan. The kids aren’t sure. As the investigation continues, Stan learns that Harry Haddad is returning to competitive tennis.

As the Delaney siblings struggle with the disappearance, they inevitably assess their lives: Brooke, separated from her husband, runs a homeopathic physiotherapy clinic that is floundering. Logan—whose longtime girlfriend, Indira, has left him, impatient with his indecisiveness—indifferently pursues teaching business communications at a community college. Troy, a ruthless but successful wildcat stock investor, struggles to work out details in a plan for his ex-wife to use embryos they froze when they were married. Amy, who works part-time as a taste tester, is haunted by various mental health conditions.

After grainy footage from a neighbor’s security camera shows Stan struggling to put a roll of carpet in his car the night Joy went missing, the police believe they have sufficient cause to arrest him. While they’re at the house, however, Joy arrives. She quickly explains that she was emotionally confused and needed time away, so she impulsively agreed to go away with Savannah on a fancy 21-day off-the-grid retreat. She left a note, but Stan deduces that a faulty refrigerator magnet let the note slide to the floor and then the family dog ate it. Revived by her retreat, Joy is ready to make her marriage and retirement work. Stan explains to the police that he replaced a carpet that Joy long disliked to make up for quarrelling with her. The family reunites and pledges to work through their complicated and messy emotions together.

As the novel closes, Savannah boards a plane and heads back home to Adelaide. She reveals that before she left months earlier, she drugged her mother and left her locked in her bedroom with only a few protein bars and bottles of water, sure that her mother would slowly starve to death. Savannah is returning there to see whether her plan worked.

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