Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
Published by Harper
Publication date: August 1, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary, Historical, Literary
I’m not sure I’ve ever started a review with an apology to the book and, possibly, the author. There’s a story here, so please be patient. I’ve always enjoyed Ann Patchett’s books, both fiction and nonfiction so I thought I was ready for her latest, Tom Lake, when it came out in August. A friend kindly loaned me their print copy. I tried it and loved its beginning, but print reading is harder for me now so I set it aside. I tried listening to the book, as read by the amazing Meryl Streep, but while her voice soothed me, my attention drifted. I finally settled into the e-book version from the library and finished it. Only to be filled with remorse for not having given this special, tender novel the attention it deserved when it came out.
In a Michigan cherry orchard during the summer of COVID Lara, Joe, and their three grown daughters are alone in the midst of the sweet cherry harvest. What would normally be a time of gathering with hired help, neighbors, and friends for Lara and Joe, while the girls were off pursuing their lives, has turned into a sequestered summer of just the five of them. Long days are spent picking cherries together while Emily, Nell, and Maisie push their mother to recount another summer decades ago when she was on stage as the lead in Our Town, acting alongside Peter Duke, a man who would go on to be a famous movie star and celebrity. A man she also dated.
As the days pass and Lara picks through her memory to feed the voracious curiosity of her daughters, Tom Lake falls into an easy rhythm—the excitement of summer theater for a young woman dating a mercurial actor overlaid by the quiet pleasures of Lara now, in a life she truly loves. What had been a paragraph in Lara’s history becomes chapters to her daughters, enthralled by every detail and wanting more. But how much does a mother need to share?
I’d been warned by other readers that Tom Lake leaned heavily on the play Our Town. If you know the play it may enhance the novel, but I know nothing about theater and still fell heart and soul into these long, lovely days of a family working hard towards a common goal. The simple beauty, the focus, of being rooted in the land your family has lived on for generations. The peacefulness of their lives in this moment even as it’s clouded by a pandemic.
A pandemic that’s just one aspect of the story. Like Day, this is another unusual novel not about COVID’s disastrous immediate impact, but the other long-term damages—the psychic trauma of lives put on hold, lost opportunities, economic peril, the future that could have been. Patchett gathers all this and moves with grace through past and present interactions, allowing even the hardest to flow as naturally as those around any family’s kitchen table. There are the difficult conversations of things that need to be said and those that everyone wishes could stay unsaid. All come to life, rippling through the deep, still pond that is Tom Lake.
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