I 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