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  • Writer's pictureLaurie Fundukian

Book Review: Tom Lake, A Novel by Ann Patchett

Tom Lake, Ann Patchett’s latest novel (out last year) has a lovely Michigan connection, along with nods to Chekov and Thornton Wilder. This is not a book that will keep a reader up at night, but it is satisfying in its depth, comfort, thoughtfulness, and prose--and the cherries seem to be a metaphor for life. Many have raved about the audiobook version, which is narrated by none other than Meryl Streep, so there is more than one way to enjoy the prose.

The book tells the story of Lara, a mom of three daughters who, along with her husband Joe, owns a cherry orchard in Northern Michigan, which they inherited from Joe’s aunt and uncle. It’s the summer of 2020, and all three daughters are home due to the Covid lockdown. One daughter (Maisie) is a veterinary student; another (Emily) wants to take over the cherry orchard with her boyfriend; and the third (Nell) is a college drama student. Because of Covid, many of the regular workers who harvest the cherries aren’t able to be on site, so the family needs to double down on the work of picking and sorting the “sweets” (the fragile cherries that are eaten and not made into jam). With just one another for company, the girls beg their mother to tell the story of her youth and how she came to be in a relationship with an actor who later became famous. Lara met Duke while they were both acting at a summer stock theatre in Michigan. They had a relationship, and he went on to become a Hollywood megastar. Lara doesn’t give all her secrets away during these reflections, but the orchard conversations give the girls a chance to see their mother as a full human and not just a maternal figure; and the book has a bit of a “how I met your father” moment, too.

The book begins in the past, with Laura (she later drops the u for dramatic effect) in her small New Hampshire town helping with auditions for the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder, a classic that many theatres feel obligated to produce but few do well (it’s not a showstopper but more nuanced). Lara has no intention of auditioning, but after seeing many poor attempts, she decides she can do it, and ends up being the best Emily (the tragic lead) the town has ever seen. She reprised the role later, in college, and was spotted by a movie director, who took her to Los Angeles to appear in his latest movie. After filming, the release was delayed, and after living in LA and working on a sitcom and some commercials, Lara returned home to New Hampshire to live with her grandmother.

When she auditioned for Emily in a Broadway production of Our Town, Lara didn’t get the part, but instead was offered the opportunity to play the same role at Tom Lake, a summer stock theatre in Michigan. And that’s where she meets Peter Duke, a young actor who has so much presence, but clearly is destined for bigger things. She also meets Joe Nelson, who directs their play and plays a pivotal role later in her life. Lara and Peter Duke immediately become a couple, enjoying the sweet Michigan summer in 1984, swimming in Tom Lake and drinking to excess (which comes back to haunt Duke later). Throw in his brother (a tennis pro) and another actress, and this foursome has a great time… until something sudden happens to break them all apart.

The book’s timeline moves back and forth between past and present, which works very well to unveil the full story–better than if the whole past was told first and then the present. This allows for some really good reflections on life then and now. In the deep conversations happening during the summer of 2020, Lara and Joe’s daughters also reveal some things about their own futures and how they feel about the climate crisis and the state of the world–things that 1984 Lara was not thinking about at all. This summer has given the family time to get to know one another as adults and friends.

The novel is full of the complexities of relationships--what happens when they change or end or come back around--and living the life you didn’t know you wanted (because who would choose life in Northern Michigan over Hollywood?!) While it’s mostly a lovely slow burn, there are some surprises (especially at the end) that keep things interesting. If you’re familiar with Michigan and Our Town, you may easily connect with this story, but those experiences are not required; they only enhance this Ann Patchett novel. Another interesting note: Patchett lives part-time in Nashville and owns and operates a bookstore there, Parnassus Books. This is her sixth novel and it continues her legacy well.

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