Would you want to know the all-encompassing details and vagaries of the life your parent lived before they ‘settled down’ (aka married and had children)?
Such solemn, and even existential, concerns are encapsulated and explored in a beautiful and rambunctious manner in stellar American author, Ann Patchett’s, latest extraordinarily sublime novel, Tom Lake.
Set in the picture-perfect environs of northern Michigan (a state in America), Tom Lake alternates in time, predominantly between years 1988 and 2021. In 1988 ‘summer stock’ theatre workers (actors, actresses, directors, costume staff and so on), are putting on the soul-enriching play of ‘Our Town’ at the invigorating Tom Lake theatre complex and environs. ( A summer stock theatre in the United States is a theatre where only in summer are stage productions performed).
In 2021, we find ourselves at the cherry farm of Joe and Lara Nelson, in a heavenly and bountiful Michigan summer. Their three adult daughters, Emily (twenty-six who in now helping to run the farm), Maise (twenty-four who is studying vet science at university and is devoted to helping neighbours with their animal health issues), and Nell (twenty-two, who has her sights set on being an actress, though with the pandemic, not much is happening for her career-wise) are assisting their parents with the annual cherry harvest.
Our main protagonist in the novel is fifty-seven year old Lara. In the harvesting summer of 2021, when all the family are working like trojans to pick the cherries on the Nelsons’ farm, Lara finds herself reservedly and cautiously being a shining beacon of curiosity, with insistent and relentless clamour from her daughters.
Emily, Maisie and Nell have long known that their mother, at twenty-four, dated the dashing and ever-performing Hollywood star, Peter Duke. Now the girls want to know EVERYTHING about the time Lara spent with Duke at Tom Lake, performing in summer stock in 1988, acting together in ‘Our Town’ (Lara as “Emily” and Duke as “Editor Webb”). Further, the ever-assessing and appraising daughters want to know about Lara’s life before and after Tom Lake.
As Lara lovingly declares to her girls, as she embarks on telling them the fervent, turbulent and at-times blissful vagaries of her life, “‘It is a story about Duke,’ I say, taking in a deep breath of northern Michigan in the summer, the smell of the trees, of these three girls. Nothing will ever be like it.’
“‘It’s about Duke and it’s not,’ Nell says”. ” ‘That’s right,’ I say, nodding. ‘Yes and no’ “.
How did Lara, a girl from conservative New Hampshire (an American State) get to be performing on the stage with a soon to be famous Hollywood icon?
Were the days Lara spent with Duke, his almost tennis-pro brother, Sebastian, and the lithe and patient understudy to Lara’s ‘Emily’ and performer in ‘Cabaret’, Pallace, really the foundations for an exquisite summer together at Tom Lake? Or were there seismic ruptures waiting to occur for the zestful friends and partners?
Why did Duke and Lara break up? Why did Lara stop acting after performing as Emily? How did Lara, so dazzling and powerful as ‘Emily’ in ‘Our Town’, come to be living on a cherry farm?
Is Lara happy with the choices she has made in life? Will she ever truly get Duke out of her system? Does Joe have any reason to be jealous?
As Lara poignantly reflects of Duke, “Duke threw his entire life into everything he did, into every backhand, into the modest role of Editor Webb, into me, into us. He was so sure of us that we’d decided to go to L.A. together once the summer was over. …..I had talked to my agent, who said he’d have no trouble finding work for me. I told him that surely he could find something for Duke as well”.
Where do Duke and Lara stand with each other now? How has Duke’s life panned out on a personal level? Was Emily’s childhood obsession that Peter Duke was her father an accurate one?
I loved, loved, loved this novel. Ann has written a book overflowing with intelligence, wisdom and superb insights into the human psyche and condition.
Themes of ambition, grief, tragedy, family dynamics, friendship and romance are examined expertly by Ann in Tom Lake.
Bravo Ann! Once again you have knocked it out of the ballpark with this one. American Actress, Reese Witherspoon, chose Tom Lake as one of her Book Club picks, so definitely the novel will have a high readership.
If ever you happen to find yourself in Nashville, Tennessee, you can visit Ann’s wonderful bookshop, Parnassus Books.
Put me down to read ANYTHING Ann writes next!
Your chance to read Tom Lake
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