Tom Lake: A Novel
“The structure of Tom Lake is wonderfully measured as Patchett weaves the fine details of dual timelines together. . . . For lovers of upmarket fiction, Tom Lake is a fascinating story beautifully told.”
What can be said about author Ann Patchett beyond you know that anything she writes will be brilliant. Patchett’s latest novel, Tom Lake, is yet again another case in point of this storyteller’s extraordinary literary prowess. She takes the clear premise of a modern-day mother telling her grown daughters a story that took place in her youth, and alternates between a perfectly balanced first-person-present point of view and a past tense coming of age story.
It is the year 2020 on a cherry farm in Northern Michigan, and Lara Kenison Nelson relishes having her three, twenty-something daughters home during the Covid pandemic. Though a hard-working labor of love in a pastoral setting, Lara says of the family run farm, “The farm is either the very paradise of Eden or a crushing burden of disappointment and despair manifested in fruit, depending on the day.”
Maisie Nelson is working toward becoming a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine; her sister Nell wants to be an actress; and Emily, the eldest sibling, plans to run the family business that was passed down through generations of her father’s forbears. The sisters are different in temperament yet have one thing in common: in their forced seclusion, they want to hear the story of how their mother came to know the world-famous actor Peter Duke, whose celebrity status was tantamount to being the Brad Pitt of his day.
To Lara’s chagrin, her husband is the catalyst that piqued the girls’ interest, and Lara confesses, “I certainly had no intention of telling them I dated a movie star for a summer in my twenties before he was a movie star.”
It is the rare reader who wouldn’t be interested in the anatomy of a smalltown girl’s passionate romance with a magnetic young actor who ultimately became a major celebrity, and Patchett lays the foundation with a play the then 20-year-old Lara was cast in at the University of New Hampshire. Lara says of that time, “Acting never crossed my mind. Or it didn’t until my junior year, when I saw an audition notice for Our Town tacked to a cork board in the student center.”
It is 1984, and fate and luck and timing lead from one pivotal event to another, as Lara is serendipitously seen in Our Town by a Hollywood director who believes she is perfect for a part in a particular movie. Lara is flown to Hollywood for a screen test and gets the part, but after the film is shot, the project is put on hiatus for a few years. In the interest of biding time and investing in her acting future, Lara is sent to star in a repertory theater’s production of Our Town at rural Michigan’s Tom Lake, and within minutes of arriving, a fellow actor enters her room and changes her life.
“This is the story about Peter Duke who went on to become a famous actor,” Patchett writes. “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.”
The world building in 1980s Tom Lake’s backstory is cinematic and visceral. It is rural Michigan in the summer, and Lara’s sphere is comprised of actors in an insular community who keep a rigidly detailed schedule. Time itself moves uniquely and intimate bonds are formed instantaneously, ratcheting up the significance of Lara’s electric affair with the charismatic Peter Duke in a way that leaves her vulnerable to the inevitability of a hard fall, and whose fallout surprisingly provides for a future appropriate landing.
The structure of Tom Lake is wonderfully measured as Patchett weaves the fine details of dual timelines together. Patchett writes expertly of behind-the-scenes theatrical nuance, and equally wields the minute mechanics of a daily fruit farm’s seasonal labor.
Patchett’s trademark, accessible language drives the modern times narrative, and the backstory is sensitive, engaging, and insightful. As the story unfolds, Lara muses on just how much of the truth to reveal to her daughters, and tells the reader, “There is no explaining this simple truth about your life: you will forget much of it. The painful things you were certain you’d never be able to let go? Now you’re not entirely sure when they happened, while the thrilling parts, the heart-stopping joys, splintered and scattered and became something else.”
For lovers of upmarket fiction, Tom Lake is a fascinating story beautifully told. It’s a relatable tale of family life with a focus on the scars of young love’s thrilling dynamic, tempered by time’s hard earned wisdom, and the gratitude that comes with the realization that it all led to right where you’re standing.