A review of Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Tom Lake
by Anne Patchett
August 2023, Hardcover, 320 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0063327528

In Ann Patchett’s engaging new novel, Tom Lake, readers will see echoes of classic works of literature.  The novel centres on Lara Nelson and her family, isolated on their northern Michigan fruit farm during the Covid-19 pandemic. Like  Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, a 14th century work in which ten people tell stories  while hiding from the Black Death, this novel involves storytelling. Lara, a former actress turned farm partner, tells her life story to her daughters, and in the process, feels better about her past.

With seasonal fruit pickers scarce during the pandemic, the Nelson family must harvest their  crops themselves. Lara and her husband, Joe, both in their fifties, are fortunate in having help from their daughters, all in their twenties.  The eldest, Emily, is a university graduate in horticulture and farm management, and in a relationship with a similarly educated young farmer, her childhood sweetheart.  The middle daughter,  Maisie, who has almost finished her veterinary studies, volunteers in her field when not harvesting cherries for her family.  The youngest, Nell, an aspiring actor, is suffering the most from isolation on the farm.

To entertain her daughters, and respond to their questions, Lara starts telling her story to her girls, who want to know all about her brief connection with the famous movie star, Peter Duke, with whom she co-starred in a summer theatre production of “Our Town”. Though Joe Nelson also worked in theatre in his youth, Lara is the one who knew Duke so the girls clamour for her memories.

Lara cherry-picks the details of her story, avoiding what is deeply personal and embarrassing. She is the first person narrator, so readers hear her thoughts as well as her spoken words, and learn more about her background than her daughters do. The young women’s questions force her to remember past events and incidents, not always in chronological order, but the frequent time shifts in “Tom Lake” work because the story is presented from her point-of-view.  They keep listening, and the reader keeps reading, to find out about her romance with the movie star, Peter Duke. How did a budding actress become a farm wife?

Born in small-town New Hampshire, Laura Kenison, who later dropped her “u”, was indecisive about future careers while in high school. On impulse, she auditions for the role of Emily Webb in a local production of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, “Our Town”, and gets the part because she acts simple and natural; she is playing herself.  Later, at the University of New Hampshire, she plays the role again, and  is noticed by a Los Angeles director, Mr. Ripley, who has come east to see his niece perform another part. He believes that twenty year old Lara would be perfect for an upcoming movie role, and offers to fly her to L.A. for a screen test. Her parents and kindly grandmother, a small town seamstress, urge her to seize the opportunity, so Lara abandons university for California, where she gets the role and enjoys the work, the sun and other interesting young people.

In leaving her home town, Lara contrasts sharply to the role she plays best, that of fictional Emily Webb.  Emily, the smartest girl in her class, considers leaving her small town for further education but falls in love with local boy, George Gibbs.  On the eve of her wedding, she is racked with doubts but  goes ahead with the ceremony.  In the third act, she has died in childbirth and, in the afterlife, wishes for one more day on earth, but when she gets it, she’s disappointed.

Our Town is often described as a celebration of small town/ rural life, with its emphasis on family and community, and an exhortation to enjoy the little moments, for life is short. In fact, the play is pessimistic, because it suggests that the human species is incapable of valuing these everyday moments while experiencing them.

Although Lara could have taken over her grandmother’s sewing business  in her home town, she embraces her chance to see something of the wider world. Was she wrong? Her three daughters, and the readers, want to know about her journey from promising actress to farm homemaker, and the quest for the full story moves the novel forward.

After three years in Los Angeles, Lara’s movie has not yet been released and she is making commercials and a sit-com.  To boost her career, she goes to New York to audition for the role of Emily Webb, again, but is rejected because she isn’t well enough known.  When one of Mr. Ripley’s contacts tells her about a summer theatre in Tom Lake, Michigan, that needs an Emily, Lara seizes the opportunity.

On arriving in Tom Lake, she is greeted by the charismatic Peter Duke, an aspiring actor a couple of years older than herself, who also has a role in “Our Town”, and they soon become lovers.  Peter’s brother, Sebastian, a former tennis star, now a coach in Chicago, often visits, and has a romance with Lara’s understudy.  Of this summer, Lara recalls, in her thoughts: “We ate and drank and slept our art and strolled through a utopia of cherry trees.” The four young people also play tennis and swim, and one day, visit a cherry orchard owned by the aunt and uncle of – Spoiler Alert! – Joe Nelson, an actor and director at the theatre. Then things go wrong for Lara.  An injury prevents her from playing Emily during last few performances. Watching her understudy in the role, she sees what true talent looks like. Lara excels in playing characters like herself but the understudy can inhabit and illuminate any role. To justify staying on at Tom Lake, she works as a seamstress, then realizes that Peter Duke has dumped her for her understudy.

As soon as she is able, Lara goes to Los Angeles on crutches to promote her movie, which is finally being released. She returns to New Hampshire for family reasons, then works in New York theatres – in costumes and wardrobe.  Her next-to-last encounter with Duke is too humiliating to share with her daughters. Though aware of his rise to stardom, she soon undergoes another sea change in her life and is too happy in it to give him much thought.

Readers familiar with Our Town, by Thornton Wilder (1938) and The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov (1904) will wonder if these two classics influenced Ann Patchett in writing Tom Lake.  This reader was struck by one plot similarity to Chekhov’s play, in which an entire estate in Russia, including the cherry orchard, is about to be sold to pay off the debts incurred by its aristocratic owner. In Tom Lake,  Joe Nelson’s aunt and uncle on their Michigan fruit farm were deeply in debt due to financial ignorance and the inevitable ups and downs of farming.

On Lara’s first visit to the Nelson orchard, she makes a faux pas, suggesting that the owners could sell some of the land to pay their debts. She is told that land is sold only when people die and the kids refuse to come home and take it over.  In The Cherry Orchard, a local businessman suggests that the aristocratic estate owner  put up summer cottages as a source of income, but she won’t hear of it. When she loses the estate, the businessman buys it and  cuts down the cherry trees. This does not happen in the Nelsons’s case; instead, a rich outsider buys a very small portion of the farm,  rescuing  the elderly owners from debt, and then the “kids” come home and take it over.

Chekhov, however, is writing about class changes in the Russia of his day, so Our Town, an American work, seems more likely to be an influence on Patchett than The Cherry Orchard” is. Like Thornton Wilder, Ann Patchett shows the value of rural life, family and community, but, by presenting Lara’s earlier life, she acknowledges the significance of the wider world in making her knowledgeable and open-minded.  Tom Lake is not as parochial as Our Town. Though Lara is pleased to have her daughters home, and glad that the elder two seem destined for a rural life near her, she can also understand her  youngest, Nell, who cries, “I want to go on an audition. I want to…get the hell out of this orchard.”

Even the daughter intent on preserving the family farm has  plans that go against traditional rural community values.  While Wilder makes much of the ritual of marriage in “Our Town”, Lara’s and Joe’s daughter, Emily, doesn’t want a big wedding with all the neighbours invited, and is thankful that the pandemic will prevent it. She and her fiancé plan to squeeze a quiet ceremony into a lull in the farm work. They also decide not to have children, because of the threat that climate change poses to life on earth.

Lara tells her girls that her romance with Duke was “like one of those god-awful rides at the fair…You wake up one day and discover you don’t want the carnival any more.”  This may be true, but at the same time she vividly remembers the sensations of falling wildly in love with him, “the way one will  at twenty-four.” On the whole, she doesn’t regret the experience. Patchett’s characters appreciate the little moments and everyday pleasures of existence.  They are able to lead examined lives because their pasts have broadened their minds. In the end, their worldy wisdom allows them to be generous and take a positive view of time’s passage.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s latest novel, “A Striking Woman”, a story of true love and union organizing in Canada, is available at info@baico.ca