Tom Lake by Ann Patchett: A celebration of life and love

Cover image for Tom Lake by Ann PatchettI knew there was a new Ann Patchett on the horizon but wasn’t entirely sure of its publication date so when a proof of Tom Lake turned up out of the blue I was thrilled to bits. I’m a big Patchett fan and although her lovely collection of essays, These Precious Days, had been a treat, it’s four years since The Dutch House was published so I was more then ready for her new novel. Tom Lake is set on a Michigan fruit farm where Lara is entertaining her daughters with the story of her youth as they help to bring in the cherry harvest during the first summer of the pandemic.

This is a story about falling in love with Peter Duke who wasn’t famous at all. It’s about falling so wildly in love with him – the way one will at twenty-four – that it felt like jumping off a roof at midnight. There was no way to foresee the mess it would come to in the end, nor did it occur to me to care.  

Emily, Maisie and Nell are all in their twenties: Emily following in her parents’ farming footsteps; Maisie studying to become a vet and Nell’s acting career stymied by Covid. The family has settled into a routine, listening to Lara’s story of her brief career as an actor, spotted by an agent in a university production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Whisked off to L. A. for a screen test, she finds herself cast in a film whose release is constantly delayed. At a loose end, she reprises her Emily role in a summer season at a Michigan theatre overlooking the eponymous lake where she meets Peter Duke, handsome, ambitious and destined to become a household name. Together with Lara’s understudy and Peter’s tennis-playing brother, Lara and Peter form a foursome which comes to an abrupt end. For Lara, that summer is a small part of the happy life she’s led but for her daughters her story is a revelation.

Over the years I told them their father and I met at Tom Lake. What I realise in this moment, and Joe realises it too, is that maybe we’ve never told them more than that. Or maybe they are children looking at their parents and so our lives began when they began and everything else they coloured in with fat crayons anyway they wanted.

It’s worth looking up Wilder’s play before you get too far into Patchett’s hugely enjoyable novel, although Northern American readers can probably skip that as they’ll likely be familiar with it. Wikipedia says that Our Story is ‘an essential play about how we must embrace and appreciate the value of life itself’ which neatly encapsulates Patchett’s themes for me. Lara tells her story, interrupted by her daughters whose own stories are threaded through the narrative alongside their parents’. All three daughters are entranced by the idea of their mother having a life before them despite knowing bits and pieces about her brief acting career and her relationship with the man who became an Oscar-winning movie star. As ever, Patchett is the consummate storyteller, her novel immersive and involving. I loved it as I’m sure you’ve gathered.

Bloomsbury Books: London 9781526664273 320 pages Hardback

26 thoughts on “Tom Lake by Ann Patchett: A celebration of life and love”

  1. I’ve loved Ann Patchett ever since I sat next to someone who was reading Bel Canto on a.long-haul flight. She handed it to me when she finished and told me I had to read it.

    You know, I was going to try and hold off until the paperback came out but have just ordered myself the hardback. She’s too good to put off reading. Thanks, Susan!

  2. This does sound like a good one. I transcribed an interview with her talking about this and it was striking that the play in question is so well known in the US but I’d never even heard of it!

    1. Highly recommend it! I’ve seen lots of references to it Our Story in American novels but hadn’t looked it up until now. I think it’s much loved by amateur dramatic societies, schools and universities.

  3. The only Prachett I have read is Bel Canto, a long time ago. This sounds very good, and no doubt we’ll be getting more and more novels set during the pandemic now. I already have a couple tbr.

  4. I normally enjoy Patchett, though I remember being a little disappointed in The Dutch House, as were several members of my book group. Still, I will try this one, having remembered first to do my homework on Our Town!

    1. Sorry about The Dutch House which I did enjoy but I would say this one’s better. I think Our Town is the kind of play every American high school stages so they’re all familiar with it. Not sure if there’s a British equivalent.

  5. I love Patchett, although I have fallen behind with her. This does sound wonderful and you’ve encouraged me to catch up! I really enjoy the humanity in her writing and this sounds a perfect example.

  6. Excellent review. Our Town us wonderful. I doubt anyone under 40 has read it since it is set in an all white small town, but it is wonderful. No real sets, a narrator, so much to imagine if you haven’t read it or seen it i highly recommend it.

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