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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

Patchett's Tom Lake is a heartwarming, poignant Covid-era bonding session between a mother and her three grown daughters as Lara recounts the surprisingly layered story of her youthful romance with an actor who later became famous.

"But I'm not being self-deprecating. I'm telling you, I had a genuine talent for being myself, and for a while it worked."

In Ann Patchett's newest novel, Tom Lake, Lara's three young-adult daughters reunite at the family's Northern Michigan orchard. Covid-19 has struck, and the family is experiencing more togetherness than they ever thought they'd have again.

Lara, her husband Joe, and the girls work feverishly to harvest the cherry crop without the usual support of workers due to the virus, and to make the time pass, the girls beg Lara to share the story of her youthful romance and acting job alongside the then-unknown, later-famous Peter Duke at the theater company Tom Lake.

Did I ever wonder if my parents had been in love with other people, or think of them as having lives before their lives included me? Maybe it's just that my girls are modern, or that Duke was famous, or that we're mired down in work with only the past for distraction. I have no idea.

But when Lara shares aspects of a life lived before her children existed, her daughters are led to consider their own paths and choices, as well as life's twists and turns, evolving dreams and desires, their relationship with their mother, and their parents' bond.

There is no explaining this simple truth about 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...until one morning you're picking cherries with your three grown daughters and your husband goes by on the Gator and you are positive that this is all you've ever wanted in the world.

While reading The Dutch House I became frustrated with its characters' relentless rehashing of the past and the way their blame and dissatisfaction was unhappily credited to events surrounding the house of their youth.

But both the steady pacing and the unique, sequestered Covid-dictated circumstances of Tom Lake made the characters' delving into the past feel both cozy and wonderfully surprising.

Lara shields her daughters from only a few select elements of the story, which begins as a demand for gossipy entertainment from Mom and becomes a meaningful venture into exploring Lara as a complex person. All of the characters seem affected by the truths that emerge in Lara's telling about Lara herself, Duke, her young life, her path to her husband Joe, and the unexpected ways her future shifted and changed.

"You'll tell us, won't you?" Nell says to me. "You promise?"

I tell her yes, I promise, but she isn't going to like it.

With the girls wondering what might have been and initially bemoaning Lara's lack of ambition, Lara is more content than ever in her settled life far from stardom, performing, and rubbing elbows with famous people.

The story of Duke is far from wholly jolly, and the fascinating, somewhat tragic complexity of his life is evident.

I loved the twist in the story and the girls' reactions to it.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Patchett is also the author of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, State of Wonder, Run, Bel Canto, The Dutch House, The Magician's Assistant, These Precious Days, and other books.


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