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Ann Patchett’s “Tom Lake” may very well be the first pandemic novel that anyone actually likes. Set among the cherry trees of northern Michigan in the summer of 2020, narrator and protagonist Lara tells her three 20-something-aged daughters a story of the time she dated a movie star named Peter Duke — while avoiding any hint of cringe. Whether it’s Patchett’s ever-prodigious touch or the story’s determined wholesomeness, her ninth novel is reflective and mellow, though by no means prudish — it recounts a hot summer fling, after all. Most of all, it’s rich with the kind of devastatingly real depictions of humanity that readers have come to expect from Patchett.
While in the present day, Lara and her family deal with the daily hard work of the cherry farm (short a few hands because of the pandemic), the young, 24-year-old Lara in her story-within-a-story has an irritatingly perfect life. Discovered by a producer at a high school production of “Our Town,” she goes on to star in a movie, and then to perform in “Our Town” again during summer stock at the eponymous Tom Lake. It’s there that she meets Duke, a then-unknown actor who sweeps her off her feet within the first hour. It’s one of those loves that flares bright but short, and while it yanks the reader along in whirlwind fashion, the mature Lara and her family are the ones who provide the novel’s layers of reflective insight.
Lara’s daughter Emily, named after the character her mother played in “Our Town,” has the frightening intensity of strong-willed eldest daughters, and Lara’s memories of Emily’s years of teenage “hormonal rage” paint a complex and heartbreaking portrait of parent-child relations. Though becoming convinced that your favorite movie star is your true biological father in a fit of delusion might not be a universal teenage experience, the hurt that Emily causes her parents and family is still utterly piercing. Even years later, Lara admits that she is “still somewhat afraid of her.”
Furthermore, it’s through Nell, the youngest and only daughter who inherited Lara’s desire for the stage, that the reader comprehends the significance of a central event in Lara’s story: When she ruptures her Achilles tendon midway through the run of “Our Town.” Although the injury itself isn’t career-ending, this marks the beginning of Lara’s disillusionment with the industry (and with Duke) and the end of her acting career. “While her sisters stare uncomprehending, Nell sobs against [her mother’s] chest,” understanding, as the only other performer in the family, that Lara didn’t go on stage again that summer. It’s an absolutely devastating moment, made even more poignant by Nell’s parallel grief. While Lara has ended her career — and mostly by choice — young Nell, who wants it so badly, has yet to begin. Even worse, she’s losing precious time to the pandemic while she is “beautiful and young in a profession that cares for nothing but beauty and youth.” In these moments, one thinks Patchett must have lived a thousand lives to understand where the keystones of human experience and emotion lie, and then to describe them so adeptly, so accurately.
Though Patchett gets this crucial moment just right, there are moments where the novel falters. Emily voices some climate anxieties in a rather sudden and jarring way, and the girls protest their parents’ occasionally “un-woke” habits in lines that feel added-on. Attempts to comment on race concern Pallace, Lara’s understudy and best friend at Tom Lake, who is seemingly the only Black character in the book. The fact that Pallace ostensibly doesn’t make it to Hollywood, unlike Duke and Lara (who are both white), seems a realistic and quiet nod to the realities of theater — yet it still feels like a half-baked attempt to talk about race.
“Tom Lake” manages to feel both wandering and organic, while maintaining a neatly progressing arc of realizations. But it’s almost too neat: The reader slowly starts to make connections — recognizing the origins of each daughter’s name, recognizing their father, and their home, all within Lara’s dream-like story. Her husband, too, is miraculously never uncomfortable with this deep dive into his wife’s past love. But what kind of pandemic novel would it be if it wasn’t a little escapist? In fact, perhaps what makes this novel so agreeable despite being set in 2020 is that it captures not just the small, hidden, somewhat guilty pleasures of being trapped at home with family, but also both narrates and embodies the longing for escapism — for stories of levity, happiness, and joy.
Though it doesn’t shy from revealing moments of human suffering and sorrow, “Tom Lake” ultimately chooses cheeriness and heart, leaving readers feeling snug and content.
—Staff writer Sara Komatsu can be reached at email@example.com.
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