Doughty ricochets with a one-two punch, writing a masterful novel of the unexpected in which she carefully constructs the twisted psychological alleyways of the mind and of the heart. This tale isn’t just about a marriage mired in quiet, subversive animosity, perhaps as emotionally fraught as the worst of relationships, but rather the ramifications of an extra-marital affair that is taken to the extreme. The results are as heartbreaking as they are terrifying.
We, too, experience Yvonne’s profound sense of dread and unease as Doughty’s embattled heroine, fifty-two-year-old geneticist Yvonne Carmichael, sits in the dock at the Old Bailey Court being carefully cross-examined by effusive barrister Ms. Price. Yvonne’s breath deepens and the atmosphere in the court tightens, Ms. Price’s low, sinuous dialogue echoing throughout. We finally learn of Yvonne’s extra-curricular forays in the small side streets and back alleyways of the Westminster Borough and what actually unfolded in secluded Apple Tree Yard.
Of course, it all comes crashing down. For the first time, Yvonne realizes she’s about to lose everything—her marriage and her career—this woman who spent her life building substantial gravitas but eventually throws caution to the wind: “Everyone is fixed on me—everyone, my love, apart from you, You are not looking at me anymore.” From this point on, Yvonne’s story moves along in powder-keg fashion, The fuse has been lit; it's only a question of how long until the explosion and how much damage will be done when it happens.
Building her novel around unconventional dynamics of marriage and sex, Doughty has Yvonne fanatically writing a letter to her lover on her home computer as she ponders the uncertainties of her fate. The Houses of Parliament become ground zero for Yvonne and for her lover. There’s an “element of recognition…and all is decided in that instant.” He’s not notably good-looking but there is something about the way he moves, a sleekness and a confidence, “a kind of male grace.”
Taken to the Crypt Chapel, for the first time Yvonne feels the sudden delight of kissing a total stranger. The disbelief is half the thrill: “the wild dizziness you feel when a kiss is tender yet so inexorable that you can hardly breathe.” With her panties down around her ankles in this secluded chapel, gone is the act once so freighted with taboo or convention. There’s a breathless excitement and danger in the form of a promiscuous man with good manners who likes risky sex with strange women in unusual places.
The tale comes full circle, ending with Yvonne’s trial and the machinations of the prosecution barrister, the witnesses, the forensic experts, and the police officers. Doughty unfolds Yvonne’s compelling secrets, deconstructing her heroine’s carefully articulate mask while counterbalancing it with the internal workings of Yvonne’s marriage. Yvonne is convinced that her husband, Guy, loves her, yet both are exhausted by the demands of their careers and seem shackled by a long-dead intimacy. Until recently, Yvonne had only seen the mask and never the real face of her spouse.
The plot is so devious that the reader will be caught between admiration and real dislike for each character. Doughty brings Yvonne’s life brilliantly alive: the pent-up terror, so carefully and initially wrought, and the unwinding and all-pervasive sense of melancholy and depression that hovers around her. Yvonne is smug in her assumption that through her devotion and sexual titillation and her lustful acquiescence to all of her lover’s desires, she will eventually convince him of the vastness of her own infinite and selfless desire—and he, in turn, will share every aspect of himself with her. She’s fooling herself if she thinks she can forget the truth about what really happened as her lover’s agenda plays out in a cat-and-mouse game of murder and revenge on a grand scale. Part of Yvonne’s lesson is that she is finally forced to realize that her lover’s sense of power is fragile and illusory.
Once those dark truths are revealed, Doughty’s true storytelling genius takes flight. We, like the jury, are forced to examine the event that plunges the court back into reality and sucks Yvonne into a frightening new vortex. Central London—Parliament Square, St. James Park, the cafés, shops, and pubs of Westminster—are a tense and lonely backdrop to the various revelations while the notion of whether or not love conquers all becomes essential to Yvonne’s sexy, fabricated construct that proceeds to collapse around her.