Ann Patchett once again proves herself a master of the family narrative in Tom Lake, which, like her previous novels The Dutch House and Commonwealth, spans decades yet still feels intimate, offering well-drawn characters and finely paced revelations.
The novel opens in the middle of things: “That Veronica and I were given keys and told to come early on a frozen Saturday in April to open the school for the Our Town auditions was proof of our dull reliability.” We soon learn that we’re at the beginning of a story told by narrator Lara Nelson—or more precisely, her backstory, which takes place in early 1980s New Hampshire.
Tom Lake is a dual-timeline novel, moving seamlessly between the pivotal summer of 1984 and present-day scenes set amid the late spring of 2020, the first COVID-19 pandemic spring, when Lara and husband Joe’s three 20-something daughters have come home to the family cherry orchard in northern Michigan. Seasonal workers can’t get to the farm, so while Lara and daughters Emily, Maisie and Nell spend long days picking cherries, Lara agrees to recount her long-ago romance with movie star Peter Duke. In 1984, 24-year-old Lara is cast as Emily in a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at a summer-stock theater in Tom Lake, Michigan, and she finds herself deep in a whirlwind romance with charismatic fellow cast member Peter. He goes on to become a famous actor, while Lara goes on to become a farmer, wife and mom.
Lara tells her story episodically, keeping her daughters (and us) waiting for more. The novel’s evocation of a mid-’80s summer-stock theater, its big and small dramas, feels both well inhabited and fresh, seen through the perspectives of both the younger Lara, who’s propelled into ingenue roles through some lucky breaks, and the older Lara, who keeps some details to herself. Through Lara’s give-and-take with her daughters, we get to know characters both present and past, and through Lara’s interiority and commentary, we also take in the Nelson family’s dynamics and the pleasures of a long marriage, as well as the regrets and might-have-beens.
The two timelines converge beautifully, and the revelations, when they come, feel both surprising and inevitable. Sometimes elegiac in tone, the novel threads the themes of Our Town and, to a lesser degree, Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard throughout: the passage of time, the inevitability of loss and death, and the beauty of an ordinary family and an ordinary life, wondrous and too brief. And as with Our Town’s community of Grover’s Corners, Tom Lake’s main settings of northern Michigan and New Hampshire feel timeless and archetypal, even a little fairy tale-ish. (If you’re an Our Town fan, you’ll also enjoy the novel’s references to other productions of the play, some of them nonfictional.) Tom Lake is a gorgeously layered novel, a meditation on love, family and the choices we make.