Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

Tom Lake
by Ann Patchett
309 pages
Published August 2023 by HarperCollins Publishers

Publisher's Summary: 
In the spring of 2020, Lara’s three daughters return to the family's orchard in Northern Michigan. While picking cherries, they beg their mother to tell them the story of Peter Duke, a famous actor with whom she shared both a stage and a romance years before at a theater company called Tom Lake. As Lara recalls the past, her daughters examine their own lives and relationship with their mother, and are forced to reconsider the world and everything they thought they knew. 

Tom Lake is a meditation on youthful love, married love, and the lives parents have led before their children were born. Both hopeful and elegiac, it explores what it means to be happy even when the world is falling apart.

My Thoughts:
Peter Duke has died. Emily, Maisie, and Nell know that their mother once knew him. In fact, for a period of time in her teens, Emily was angrily certain that Duke was her father. But they have never heard the full story of how her mother met him, how she fell in love with him, and how he disappeared from her life. Until the summer of 2020, when they are all stuck together on the family cherry farm and they demand to be told the full story. They will get the story, but it won't be the full story. Only Lara will ever know the full story. Still, as the days of harvesting go on, Lara will begin telling her daughters the story of how she came to be an actress, how she went to Hollywood and made a movie, how she ended up at Tom Lake doing summer stock, and how Peter Duke became her boyfriend. And then how he broke her heart, how she stopped acting, and how she came to marry their father. Along the way, details will come out that the girls never knew before (that Lara had once, for two weeks, wanted to be a vet, that her name was spelled Laura for the first sixteen years of her life, that she took up smoking at Tom Lake) that help them better understand the person she was before she was their mother. 

I was just 30 pages into this book when I began telling people that this book would end up on my favorite books of the year list, barring a complete letdown. Not only was I never let down, the book just kept getting better and better for me. To say I was surprised to see on Goodreads that there were reviewers who gave the book 1 or 2 stars, who called it boring, who complained that it romanticizes being quarantined during CoVid is an understatement. Did they read the same book? Yes, we are hitting the point where books set during the pandemic are hitting the book stands en masse. Yes, there is a lot of talk about the play "Our Town." No, this family is not dysfunctional. 

Regarding the pandemic? It was clear that the family experiences difficulties because of the pandemic, that Nell, in particular, felt trapped by it. But Lara is willing to admit, as many people do, that there were parts of the world being shut down that appealed to her. That being stuck with people she loved wasn't the worst thing that could happen to her. I could relate to that, to an extent (although I'd have been happier if all of my children had been with us, as Lara's were). Regarding the play? Yes, there is a lot of talk about the play and I can, honestly, see where it might have been too much for some people. But it was used to teach us so much about these characters that it never felt like too much to me. Regarding the family not being dysfunctional? Thank god! There are more than enough dysfunctional families in literature. It was a pleasure to read about a "normal" family, a family that loves each other at their core, a married couple who, after many years of marriage, still love each other and have no regrets about their pasts. 

This is my seventh book by Patchett. My first of her books was The Magician's Assistant, a book I honestly can't remember all that much about, other than that I knew I would read Patchett again. After I read Bel Canto, I wasn't sure I ever could. Not because I didn't like it but because I liked it so much that I felt certain nothing she wrote could ever live up to it. To be honest, I'm not sure any of her books have ever had the impact on me that Bel Canto did, but Patchett has absolutely lived up to my very high expectations. Tom Lake is no exception. It was a pleasure to slide into a novel that spanned decades in only 300 pages without ever feeling rushed, a pleasure to read a book, at last, that I enjoyed so much that I couldn't put it down, but, at the same time, didn't want it to end. The characters are marvelously fully drawn, Patchett covers the gamut of emotions, all with a deft touch, the settings are so evocative, and Patchett even manages to throw in a few surprises. 

The audio version of this book is read by Meryl Streep. I didn't know that when I requested this book from the library or I almost certainly would have requested the audiobook. But I could get it in print much sooner and I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. Maybe if I ever reread this one, I'll get the audiobook; but as great as I'm sure it is, I can't say that I'm sorry to have read this one in print. Patchett's writing is so marvelous that I hear it in my head and it feels like I'm hearing it in Patchett's voice. 

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