A new book from Ann Patchett is always cause for excitement, and her latest came out in early August (unusual for a highly anticipated release) because Patchett wanted it to be a summer read. Tom Lake is a pandemic novel about love, family, and how people and timing can change our ambitions and dreams. The premise of this one didn’t grab me right away when I read about it, but I was definitely willing to give it a chance. And I liked it… but didn’t love it.
Why I picked it up: Ann Patchett.
Tom Lake opens in the summer of 2020. Lara and Joe Nelson’s three grown daughters, Maisie, Emily and Nell, are back in their childhood home in Northern Michigan to wait out the pandemic. The Nelsons own a cherry orchard, and the three women are helping their parents, whose seasonal workers are absent. To pass the time, they ask Lara to tell them the story about when she was a young actress in her 20s, acting in a production of Our Town opposite an actor named Peter Duke who, years later, would become a household name. Tom Lake skips back and forth between the past and the present, as Lara slowly unspools the story of her young – and short – acting career and her relationship with Duke. She shares most of the details with her daughters, but keeps some of the story private, allowing herself some secrets and inner thoughts that are hers alone.
Tom Lake is about the choices we make in our lives – what to do, who to marry, whether to have kids, where to live – and how they are impacted by the people we meet and the capriciousness of luck. The pandemic gives Lara the chance to look back, at age 57, and come to terms with the path her life followed. Her daughters – whose lives are basically on hold due to the pandemic – face similar quarterlife soul-searching as they turn to each other and their family traditions during the weird months of early Covid.
[mild spoilers ahead]
There is a lot of trademark Ann Patchett in Tom Lake – sensitive, observant writing; complex characters; expert storytelling. Yet I found it somewhat lacking… in conflict, in momentum, in tortured yearning. Young Lara seemed too naive to me, too easily buffeted by others’ winds. And older Lara was too… happy. I wanted a little more regret, a little more “what if”. I also found that the three daughters were virtually indistinguishable in temperament and character. The last 25% was my favorite part – the pace picked up and there was some suspense – but overall, I was a little bored. I like Patchett’s message, though , which is about appreciation of what you have and who you’re with, and what’s really important in life.
The audio is performed by Meryl Streep, who, needless to say, is a sublime narrator. I highly recommend doing this one on audio if you can.
Tom Lake was the 42nd book of 2023 and satisfies the Book By An Author I Love category of the 2023 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.