‘Tom Lake’: A Michigan Farm and Family

Set during the pandemic, Lara and Joe Nelson’s three grown daughters are all home. Together, they spend their days harvesting cherries in northern Michigan.
‘Tom Lake’: A Michigan Farm and Family
A cherry farm in northern Michigan is the stage for a family drama in Ann Patchett's "Tom Lake." (Nitr/Shutterstock)
Anita L. Sherman

My daughter recently treated me with two tickets to our local community theater. Attending this play at the same time I was reading “Tom Lake” was serendipity for sure. Ann Patchett’s latest and ninth novel has its protagonist appearing in a community theater production of Thornton Wilder’s  “Our Town.”

The story opens with two friends who have agreed to handle registration for the town’s community theater production auditions. But one of them, Laura, makes a daring choice. Taking the "u" out of her name to appear more worldly (and because she liked Lara in “Dr. Zhivago”), Lara Kenison makes a life-changing decision at 16 to try out for the part of Emily Webb, the play's young female lead.

Lara's résumé carries no previous acting experience but, in her gut, the role is hers and she gets it by sheer confidence and presence, proving to be a diamond in the rough.

Past and Future Chapters

Fast forward several decades and Lara Kenison is now Lara Nelson with three grown daughters who are all home. It’s 2020 and the pandemic has altered many lives. Together on the family farm in northern Michigan, the three daughters along with their parents, Lara and Joe, spend their days harvesting cherries from the acres of rows spread lusciously with the ripened fruit. It would seem an idyllic setting—and it is—and is lavishly described by the author.

But as sublime as their days are gathering fruit, resting in tall grass, and sharing simple meals, there is a story to be told, and its unraveling brings moments of exhilaration and poignancy.

 Ann Patchett, author of "Tom Lake," in 2014. (Rodrigo Fernández/C BY-SA 4.0)
Ann Patchett, author of "Tom Lake," in 2014. (Rodrigo Fernández/C BY-SA 4.0)

Lara’s daughters want to know all the details of her time on stage and her summer romance with Peter Duke, one of the other players and one who would go on to become a famous and well-known actor. The action takes place nestled close to Tom's Lake, a favorite swimming hole. “Tom Lake” is also the name of the production company.

It starts innocently enough. The girls are watching one of their favorite films starring Peter Duke. Their father, Joe, walks through the room and casually mentions that their mother used to date him.

Now, the emotional ball gets rolling as this charismatic man is not only a favorite star but also a man who dated their mother. All in their 20s, with a father they adore, the thought of their mother with another man is both threatening and tantalizing.

Tell us the story. We have to know.

Ms. Patchett is a master storyteller, and her skills as a writer shine in this narrative, braiding the bonds of a woman and her husband, her past loves, her grown children, and the intricacies of family dynamics.

Emily, the eldest daughter and on the verge of marriage herself, has been convinced for years that Peter Duke is actually her father. Like a roller coaster never stopping, her snippiness and coolness toward her mother is offset by moments of genuine tenderness and understanding. Her heart is with the farm, and she plans to keep and run it.

Maisie, in the middle, is studying to be a veterinarian. She is curious and courageous. She’ll dash off to deliver puppies for a neighbor, not minding the blood and smell, and happy to help. While not yet licensed, she has earned the trust of the community. She trusts who her mother was and who she is now.

Lara’s early success on stage and opportunities for advancement are particularly heart-rending for Nell, the youngest daughter, who aspires to the acting life herself. As her mother relates her moves around the country for different parts, her early independence, her betrayals and her triumphs, it’s hard for young Nell to picture herself in those situations and what she would do.

And Joe, the ever trustworthy and strong husband who, readers will soon learn, was also a character in Lara’s early life, emerges as a caring hero: consistent, understanding, faithful to family, and a beacon of bright light.

Lara’s Loves Then and Now

Structurally, the narrative moves back and forth along Lara’s journey as a young actress—from her relationship with Peter Duke and his tennis-playing brother, Sebastian; her understudy, Pallace; and her agent, Ripley—to her life as a wife and mother to three grown daughters. Ms. Patchett very deftly captures the subtle nuances of mother-daughter relationships, with the sweet and sour notes of unconditional love.

Ms. Patchett wrote the entire novel on a treadmill desk, a workstation over a treadmill. She knew she wanted to be a writer since the age of 6. Perhaps those ingredients account for the novel’s clarity, its pacing and energy, and the overall joyous nature of its themes.

There is sadness, for sure, and unexpected twists of fate. I was surprised at the ending. “Tom Lake” is an insightful reflection on young love and seasoned love, and the ability to find peace and happiness in an often-chaotic world.

Ms. Patchett’s graceful and moving narrative reminds us that we are all the stuff of stories, and those stories are the collection of moments in life that we seized or let go.

 Cover of "Tom Lake" by Ann Patchett. (HarperCollins)
Cover of "Tom Lake" by Ann Patchett. (HarperCollins)
‘Tom Lake’ By Ann Patchett HarperCollins, Aug. 1, 2023 Hardcover: 320 pages
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Anita L. Sherman is an award-winning journalist who has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for local papers and regional publications in Virginia. She now works as a freelance writer and is working on her first novel. She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother to four, and she resides in Warrenton, Va. She can be reached at [email protected]