Novel reviewed: Tom Lake (Ann Patchett; 2023)

The first thing I read by Ann Patchett was her 2001 novel, Bel Canto. I was so stunned by the power of her prose, the reality of the dialogue, and her insight into human relationships that I promised myself to keep reading her work. A 2021 essay in Harper’s Magazine, “These Precious Days: Tell me how the story ends,” revealed not only a significant adventure she took with hosting a stranger in her home, but also her redemptive perspective on hospitality. Ann Patchett is a contemporary writer worth following.

Tom Lake is set during the first, hard days of COVID. Joe and Lara live on a farm, with cherry orchards, and their three daughters, all in their 20s, Nell, Maisie, and Emily, come home when their worlds shut down in the pandemic. Joe and Lara have a background in acting and theater, and the girls know at one time their mother dated Peter Duke, a handsome, dashing man who went on to achieve Hollywood fame. The girls have been in love with him forever and watched his movies endlessly. Lara had joined a summer theater group at Tom Lake and starred with Duke in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. We are brought into the rehearsals, the adrenaline of live theater, and a series of serial relationships without either inhibition or commitment. So now as Lara and her daughters pick bucket after bucket of sweet cherries—the tart ones will ripen next—the girls demand to hear her story, in detail. Tom Lake is Lara’s narrative, though she holds some details back from her daughters and tells them only to us. Patchett crafts each character so well I began to imagine I knew them and began to be able to guess how each daughter would react to some new development in her mother’s story. The dialogue is created so that it is both believable and plausible—repeatedly I found myself admiring the realism of the dialogue Patchett developed between a mother and her three grown daughters.

And yet, for all the disclosure, questions remain, mysteries. Each person lives in a story, yet no telling of that story can exhaustively disclose who that person is. As I was writing this review, a dear friend we first met in the ‘80s, Daniel Mandel, emailed the latest song he had written and recorded, “Street of Mystery.” His lyrics summed up Lara’s story in Tom Lake.

I walk through neighborhoods and city blocks
I fill my head with such heavy thoughts
And yet I keep moving on down the street

I do my best to pick it up
I do my best to not give up
I walk this world in mystery… 

Let’s do our best to live it up
Let’s do our best to live as love
We walk this world in mystery…

Near the end of Lara’s story Duke is taken to the hospital for stitches, and Lara leaves the summer theatrical group at Tom Lake with her foot in a cast from a torn Achilles.

            “So when did you see Duke?” Maisie asks.
             I shake my head. “I didn’t see him.”
            “Meaning what?” Nell says, looking like a mad little French woman. “He ghosted you?”
            “We didn’t have the terminology but yes, that’s the general idea.”
            Maisie covers her eyes with her hands. “Son-of-a-bitch. I want back every hour of my childhood I spent watching The Popcorn King.”
            I stand up. The Popcorn King. What a thought. “Thus concludes the story of the summer your mother dated a famous movie star. Fill your sister in however you see fit. I’m not doing this part again.”
            “But he wasn’t a famous movie star,” Nell says, straining to control her voice. “Not then. He was just some asshole actor like all the other asshole actors.”
            I shrug. “Some of the actors were nice. Your father was very nice.”
            “Which is why he became a cherry farmer.”
            Maisie is still sitting there, the dog in her lap asleep. “I want to kill him.”
            “Well, you can’t, he’s dead, and anyway, it happened a long time ago.” The rage dissipates along with the love, and all we’re left with is a story. Peter Duke is dead and I’m telling them my small corner of what happened.
            “So how did you get out of there?” Nell asks.
            I turn to the window. Even the rain has reached its conclusion. The sun is everywhere. “Come on. Back to work.”
            “You’ll tell us, won’t you?” Nell says to me. “You promise?”
            I tell her yes, I promise, but she isn’t going to like it.
            Maisie and Nell get their hats, their bug spray, and go out into the great dripping world wearing muck boots. I stay behind to make the lunch, which I should have been working on while I was talking all this time. The past need not be so all-encompassing that it renders us incapable of making egg salad. The past, were I to type it up, would look like a disaster, but regardless of how it ended we all had many good days. In that sense the past is much like the present because the present—this unparalleled disaster—is the happiest time of my life: Joe and I here on this farm, our three girls grown and gone and then returned, all of us working together to take the cherries off the trees. Ask that girl who left Tom Lake what she wanted out of life and she would never in a million years have said the Nelson farm in Traverse City, Michigan, but as it turned out, it was all she wanted. [p. 252-253]

Photo credit: The author with his trusty iPhone.