Tom Lake: A Novel by Ann Patchett

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Lara tries to dissuade Emily of her belief that Lara was madly in love with Duke. She wasn’t, but at the time, as a young and naïve young woman on her own, Lara fell under Duke’s spell, and they had a summer-long affair. The two met when they were the leading actors in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in summer stock at Tom Lake. Patchett uses Our Town as a frame for the story about her past. She said, in an interview in The Guardian, “I just adore Our Town. I read it in high school, and I feel certain I’ve read it every year since. It’s a great touchstone for me. As I get older, I see Our Town more and more as a meditation. How do you stay awake to life? How do you keep reminding yourself that this is a finite experience and keep what’s beautiful in the ordinary, to not always be longing for some other time and place?” Tom Lake is a modern take on Wilder’s belief that “You’ve got to love life to have life, and you’ve got to have life to love life.”

The novel oscillates between Lara’s past romantic life during the harried days of summer stock, punctuated by her off-stage romance, and her present life cherry picking, her daughters by her side, during the pandemic when life was so uncertain. The two narratives are fairly easy to keep separate, but personally, I didn’t like the ploy. By recounting her past to her daughters, Lara is forced to evaluate her life more deeply than ever. Granted, Patchett sees life, as did Wilder, as valuable in its own right. There are no big explosive scenes, no dramatic climaxes or even an interesting plot. She presents life as it is lived by most of us—nothing more, nothing less.

The daughter’s examine their own lives as the novel develops. Emily is getting married to her childhood sweetheart, Benny. The two are attached to the land and plan to join the parents’ farms when they inherit. They also make the startling decision to not have children. Maisie is the middle daughter who is studying to be a veterinarian. Her interest lies solely with animals. Nell, the youngest daughter, is the only one who wants to follow in Lara’s footsteps and become an actress. As the summer goes on, each woman examines her own life as the daughters try to connect with their mother’s past.

Ann Patchett’s work has been highly praised for her pleasant style and grace. She has been nominated for several literary prizes. For Bel Canto, she was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She won the PEM/Faulker award, Orange Prize and BookSense Book of the Year for the same work. Still, I can help but feel that Tom Lake falls far short of Bel Canto. If anything, the novel reminds me of Waiting for Godot—nothing really happens. The climax is weak, offensive even. Would any woman allow herself to be used so crudely?

Still, the book is highly praised and many will enjoy it. Wilder once said, “The central theme of the play is the relation between the countless unimportant details of our daily life, on the one hand; and the great perspective of time, social history and current religious ideas.” And this is exactly what Patchett has tried to emulate: the relationship between Lara’s view of her early life in theater and film, her affair with Duke and her present life. Her daughters think the Duke affair was important, but Lara, from the perspective of time and her contentment with her current life, doesn’t. She has come to realize that everything she ever wanted is encompassed by her present life—her life with her husband, Joe, her three daughters and her life on the farm. Her early fame as an actress “madly” in love with Peter Duke was a fantasy world not meant to endure. Tom Lake is meant to be a gentle read, and it is, but be forewarned. While it is lovely literary fiction by a prominent author, you may find it ponderous and boring.

Editor’s Note: The audiobook of Tom Lake is performed by Meryl Streep. It’s a truly enchanting way to read this book! And hardly boring.