Tom Lake is a story of life’s winding roads, disappointments, and ultimate joys and beauty. “The past, were I to type it up, would look like a disaster, but regardless of how it ended we all had many good days. In that sense, the past is much like the present because the present — this unparalleled disaster — is the happiest time of my life.”
Lara and her husband Joe are in their late 50s and live and run an orchard in Michigan. Their three daughters, Emily, Nell and Maisie are living with them because of the pandemic. Emily, the eldest, lives in a separate house on the orchard and intends to take over the orchard when the time is right. Maisie is training to be a veterinarian and Nell wants to be an actress. The pandemic has put everything on hold.
Emily, Maisie and Nell are very interested in the course of Lara’s life and the novel is Lara’s reminiscence of her past and how she ended up married to Joe and living on an orchard — some of which she tells her daughters and some of the story she withholds, but tells us!
The story begins when Lara (previously known as Laura — a tidbit her daughters just learned), was in high school and volunteering to check people in for tryouts for “Our Town.” She ends up auditioning and getting the role of Emily, which she performs to perfection.
After high school, Lara is admitted to both Dartmouth and University of Pennsylvania (neither of which she could afford), but she attends the University of New Hampshire. She did not do any acting until her junior year, when she again plays Emily in “Our Town”, where she is “discovered” by Bill Ripley. Ultimately, she goes to Los Angeles where she is cast in a movie. The release of the movie is continuously delayed.
She moves to New York where she struggles and finds herself at Tom Lake, a summer theatre in Michigan, where she is given a dormitory type room and the role of Emily in “Our Town.” “…this unremarkable room with the remarkable view in Middle-of-Nowhere, Michigan, was everything that had ever been written about freedom and possibility.” At Tom Lake, Lara meets and falls in love with another actor in the play, Peter Duke, a handsome, extremely talented, wild man.
Lara tells her daughters the detailed story of her acting experience, her relationship with Duke and how, through a variety of mishaps and perceived limited talent, she gives up her career as an actress. Interestingly, the film she made earlier in Los Angeles is ultimately released to acclaim. Duke becomes a famous actor and Lara’s daughter, Emily is obsessed with him throughout her childhood.
We also learn a lot about Lara by the stories she chooses to withhold from her daughters. In addition to Lara telling the twists and turns of her life, we learn about her daughters and their lives. Joe’s story, along with Duke’s story and the story of Duke’s brother, are left to the end.
The book is simply wonderful and life affirming, told in Ann Patchett’s deceptively simple style with subtle humor along the way. The novel describes life’s unexpected twists and disappointments, while at the same time affirming its ultimate joy and preciousness, without in any way being saccharin or preachy.
“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 and larger sorrows, and unbelievably, those things get knocked aside as well, 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.”
I love Ann Patchett. Every novel is different but her perspective on life is positive in the face of all the negative day to day existence has in store. Read this novel! Tom Lake can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.