Tom Lake: A Novel
- By Ann Patchett
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- August 16, 2023
This story centers on a happy family but still the pages fly by.
Ann Patchett has long been one of my all-time favorite writers. When her latest novel arrived in my mailbox, I ripped into the package like an over-sugared toddler on Christmas morning and — despite having a stack of more deadline-driven reading to do — promptly dove into Tom Lake.
What’s unique for me personally about Patchett is that we’re about the same age and, I sense from her nonfiction, have a similar view of the world. Reading her as she and I approach our seniority is like listening to an old friend tell an engaging story that resonates in particular ways. So, caveat emptor: I was predisposed to enjoy this book.
Tom Lake is the quietest of quiet stories: a mother recounting select elements of her life to her adult daughters as they pick sweet cherries during the pandemic. Quiet, yes, but gorgeous and entrancing in ways significant and minute via the details tucked into the corners.
Emily, Maisie, and Nell are stuck on the farm with their parents, Joe and Lara, as the pandemic rages. Most of their usual seasonal workers, in that first covid summer, can’t make it to northern Michigan for the short, intense harvesting season. Thus, given the work ahead of them to get the crop in, Lara has lots of quality time with her girls, who are clamoring to know the specifics of her early-career romance with famous actor Peter Duke.
Patchett’s rendering of this family captures so much of what is true in daily life and family dynamics — especially of even grown children being incapable of grasping their parents’ life before them — moving easily from laugh-out-loud funny to moist-eyed poignance, sometimes in the same sentence.
The author weaves her story back and forth between Lara’s formative years on stage and screen and her present life of husband, children, a dog, and a vast and demanding orchard (cue the Chekhov references). How Lara went from the one to the other is a central question that keeps the pages turning. The fact that this is a happy, well-adjusted family takes nothing away from the intrinsic drive of the narrative. Lara is telling us the story, too, and she knows how to keep us hooked.
And thus the tale opens: After a morning spent suffering through the auditions for her New Hampshire community’s production of “Our Town,” 16-year-old Laura Kenison impulsively decides that she can do better than that. With a copy of Doctor Zhivago in her bag and the stroke of a pen on her audition form, she becomes Lara, and an actress — or at least the ideal Emily Webb of “Our Town” — is born.
It is her ability to fully inhabit Emily and Emily-like characters that eventually brings Lara, via L.A. and New York, to the summer-stock theater at Tom Lake in Michigan, and immediately into the arms of Peter Duke, a young actor with charm, charisma, and unbalanced impulses to spare:
“We had known each other for a matter of hours, but they were summer-stock hours, which in the outside world would have translated to a solid six months.”
That summer is the heart of the story Lara is telling, peopled with compelling characters — not only Duke but his older, ever-responsible brother, Sebastian, and Pallas, the wickedly talented dancer and actress who is performing in Tom Lake’s production of “Cabaret” while understudying Lara in two roles. The four become two couples, but Duke is always at the center.
“Sebastian’s visits unsettled things,” writes Patchett, “almost as if his calmness allowed Duke to be crazier than he usually was, like a kid who’ll throw himself off of ladders once he knows someone’s there to catch him.” The stage is set.
The first big reveal comes smack in the middle of the book, as Lara recounts the best day of that long-ago summer; savvier readers may guess it ahead of time, but this one did not. Other revelations trickle out as Lara’s story continues, but there are elements that she decides to keep to herself.
A question repeatedly pops up: “Are you sorry? Don’t you wish?” That summer, the course of Lara’s life changes in an instant, “like a gunshot I hadn’t heard”; its report echoes through all their lives. But, as Lara confesses to Maisie’s rescue pup, Hazel, when they are alone together, “If this were a movie, I’d be drowning in regret right now. But I’m telling you, Hazel, it doesn’t feel anything like regret. It feels like I just missed getting hit by a train.”
Patchett is known for stories that throw strangers together into confined spaces to see what happens, Bel Canto being the ultimate example. Tom Lake again brings us confinement, both in that summer at the lake and again on the farm. The difference is that the people on the farm aren’t strangers; they are known and deeply beloved to each other, and Lara understands that there is no place she would rather be:
“[O]ne morning you’re picking cherries with your three grown daughters and your husband goes by on the Gator and you are positive that this is all you’ve ever wanted in the world.”
Maisie is named for Joe’s aunt, and Nell is named for Lara’s grandmother; perhaps it makes sense that Emily is named after the one character Lara could fully embody, since Lara’s Emily is what put her on her life’s path, the path that made this family — here, together, happy — possible.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.