Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
Tom Lake differs from Ann Patchett’s other work in one important way. Like all her later novels it’s beautifully written and totally believable, but it inhabits another world. It is an idyll— in fact, two idylls in one. Though her last two books, Commonwealth and The Dutch House, contain neither violence nor tragedy, both mirror the difficulties and disappointments of an imperfect existence. Tom Lake does not. From the template of bad family scenarios and love gone wrong common to most contemporary fiction, Tom Lake departs conclusively. It is an unalloyed pleasure to read.
The story moves back and forth between Tom Lake, a town in Michigan that supports a summer stock theater where the narrator, Lara Kenison, stars as Emily in Our Town, and, years later, a nearby orchard farm where she lives with her husband and three daughters. As they rest between cherry-picking sessions, Lara tells her daughters the story of her summer at Tom Lake, where she had a delicious affair with an actor named Peter Duke, now a world-famous movie idol. Heartbreakingly handsome, great in bed, lively, and in love with Lara, he’s the perfect hero of a summer romance. The story does not go downhill from here.
After snippets describing the production Our Town—the play itself an idyll of sorts—and a juicy account of the affair between Lara and Duke, Patchett jumps ahead to the orchard farm. And, despite Lara’s successful summer stock performance (Lara has already starred in a feature film), and spending the rest of her time swimming in the lake with her delightful lover, it’s the family scenes in the orchard that had me green with envy. Because, if you know anything about life, having a good marriage, a happy family, and fulfilling work is even harder to come by.
Lara’s husband, Joe, who had directed Our Town and belongs to the family that owns the farm they live on, is said to be ideal, and we believe it, though he’s kept mostly offstage. The daughters are appealing—one veterinary student, one sensitive soul with thespian aspirations, and one sharp-tongued rebel who nevertheless wants to be a farmer. The interactions of the sisters and their mother are unfailingly and convincingly amiable and fond (eat your heart out), and the orchards—sweet cherry, tart cherry, apple—a fragrant pastoral Eden.
Spoiler alert. If you don’t want to know any more of the Plot, stop reading now!
At the end of her summer at Tom Lake, Lara is laid up with a ruptured Achilles tendon, Duke hooks up with another actress in the company, and Lara decides to leave the theater for good. We’re never told why. She returns home to New Hampshire to look after her grandmother, then goes to New York where she gets a job mending costumes—her grandmother, a professional seamstress, had taught her to sew. She’s spotted mending a costume on stage one day by Joe Nelson, the Our Town director. And a courtship—never described—ensues. Cut to the orchard farm, husband (Joe Nelson, offstage), and three grown daughters.
Patchett never interprets or analyzes Lara’s transition from theatrical career to farmwife and mother of three, but the move, I take it, is designed to show us that no longer being the cynosure of all eyes on the stage is no sacrifice compared to a happy family life and a fulfilling occupation. Certainly her depiction of that life makes good on the implicit claim.
If I had any doubts about this, they were vanquished when I came upon the Author’s Note at the end of the novel.
I thank Thornton Wilder, who wrote the play that has been an enduring comfort, guide, and inspiration throughout my life. If this novel has a goal, it is to turn the reader back to Our Town, and to all of Wilder’s work. Therein lies the joy.
Dutifully I watched a 2003 production of Our Town with Paul Newman as Stage Manager on YouTube and came to a deeper sense of what Tom Lake was about.
In the last act of Our Town, most of the characters are in the graveyard; we see life now from their point of view. The contrast between how they experienced life when they had it, and what they see now, brings the whole play into focus—and Patchett’s novel as well. When Emily (the character Lara had played) dies in childbirth, and tries to return to her life before that, she realizes what the dead have known a long time, namely, that living beings are blind to the preciousness of their experience, impervious to the beauty and wondrousness of their daily lives, and especially to the gift of being with one another. The revelation—radiant and piercing—is what I believe Patchett is saying to us in Tom Lake. Glamour, fame, and fortune cannot compare to the blessings that already surround us, if only we could recognize them. Family, natural surroundings, work of some kind, making a home—these are all we need and better than any Hollywood-generated idyll. The miracle here is that Patchett is able to convince us she is right.~