In her last few books, award winning author Ann Patchett has increasingly focussed on the domestic. From 2016’s Commonwealth which centred on a group of cousins growing up to 2019’s The Dutch House which focussed on siblings coming to terms with their family’s past. Her latest novel, Tom Lake, treads similar territory from a different angle. Taking some inspiration from Chekhov, the Thornton Wilder play Our Town and the impact of the Covid lockdowns, Patchett has produced another resonant novel about first love, paths taken and not taken and the often fraught relationships between parents and their children and how those relationships change over time.
Tom Lake opens with a recollection, how Laura became Lara and ended up playing the role of Emily in the community production of Our Town. This is the introduction to the story that, in 2020, a now 57-year-old Lara is telling to her three grown daughters. The family has been reunited by the Covid pandemic, coming together at the family cherry farm in Michigan to both isolate and help with the picking given that many of the workers cannot come to help. The story of how Lara ended up playing Emily again at a place called Tom Lake and having a relationship with Peter Duke, who went on to become a TV and movie star, forms the central strand of the novel. This retelling is framed by the current day family dynamics, particularly as the three grown daughters start to get behind the mythologies they have built up about the past and begin to understand their mother and father better.
Tom Lake often feels bucolic. It is set in amongst an old farmhouse and cherry orchard that backs onto Lake Michigan, and there is plenty of detail about the joys of farming. But there is an edge to the narrative. Patchett never falls into the trap of creating an idealised world, and her characters are very aware of the impacts of Covid, the balancing act that is agriculture and are fearful of the future. Lara’s reminiscences while somewhat rose-tinted, are also tinged with the wisdom of hindsight. So that what seemed to her twenty-four-year-old self as magical is revealed to be a product of time, circumstance and wilful blindness.
There are mysteries here, and carefully dropped revelations and reveals to those mysteries. But also a cast of engaging and interesting characters in both time frames that readers will want to know more about. So that, once again, in Tom Lake Patchett has managed to create a delightful, page-turning novel out of family drama and dynamics with characters which readers will find themselves missing after the final page.