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Book Review: Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

If you own a hammock, a vintage porch swing, or a snug bay window seat, Ann Patchett’s latest book, “Tom Lake,” will transport you there mentally.

It’s as if this novel has the power to disrupt your fitness tracker, even if you’re just strolling around with Meryl Streep narrating the audiobook in your ears.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
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Ann Patchett is a celebrated figure in American literature, known for her novels, memoirs, and essays. She even established an independent bookstore in Nashville to stand against the Amazon giant. She’s like the literary Aunt everyone loves.

Her personal family history, complex and explicitly revealed after her semi-autobiographical work “Commonwealth” in 2016, adds depth to her storytelling. The themes of family intricacies continue in “Tom Lake.”

About the story

The novel invites you into a beautifully simple family setting, reminiscent of a nuclear family in its pre-modern definition. This time, the story revolves around three sisters in their twenties, situated on their parents’ cherry orchard in northern Michigan during the recent pandemic. Thornton Wilder’s influence is palpable in the narrative, reminiscent of “Our Town.”

Lara, the mother of the sisters, shares her past as an actress during lockdown, creating a sense of tranquility despite the challenges. Flashbacks take us through Lara’s acting career, especially her role as Emily in “Our Town.”

The story uncovers Lara’s connections with Peter Duke, her former co-star and ex-boyfriend who went on to become a famous celebrity. The novel examines the concept of inheritance, both in terms of genetics and life experiences.

The daughters’ eagerness to know their mother’s past reveals Lara’s life lessons – that moments of loss and triumph aren’t fixed, evolving over time. The novel has a rustic charm, occasionally simplifying complex themes. While interruptions by the cherry orchard may frustrate, they serve the narrative’s purpose.

Underneath the surface

Beneath the surface, there lies a touching vulnerability in Lara’s daughters – their emotional resonance akin to delicate, bruised fruit. Lara’s purpose in sharing her experiences is to demonstrate that seemingly definitive moments of loss and triumph carry a malleability, an ability to transform over time.

As Lara unfurls her memories before her daughters like a cherished embroidered tablecloth, she unveils the fluidity of life’s highs and lows. The profundity of the forgotten and the transformation of joy and pain emerge as central motifs.

While there’s an undeniable rustic charm to the novel, occasionally carrying a plain-spoken wisdom that may border on simplification, it navigates its own sentimentality with a measured hand. Even as the story confronts expected turns, the emotional thread remains steadfast.

The interruptions caused by the cherry orchard’s activities may frustrate initially, yet they seamlessly align with Patchett’s intention to convey the essence of storytelling, emphasizing the art of revelation and restraint.

Family vibes

What really shines in “Tom Lake” is that cozy family feeling. You’ll find yourself wrapped up in country traditions and sayings, feeling like you’re right there with them.

Lara adds a special flavor to the family dynamic with her past as an actress. It’s like a splash of something unexpected that makes the family even more interesting.

Patchett has this way of sharing little nuggets of wisdom that make you think about life. The book isn’t just about the family – it touches on stuff like how we affect the environment and how time just keeps moving on. But it’s not a heavy read. It’s more like a gentle reminder to appreciate the small things and the connections we have.

“Tom Lake” may differ from Patchett’s previous work, yet it accomplishes a unique feat by portraying a life’s essence through cumulative insights. Lara’s middle age becomes a canvas for reflection, ultimately celebrating the transformation of past wounds into cherished stories. The novel invites readers to find solace in their own narratives.

Final thoughts

“Tom Lake” paints a cozy and folksy picture, filled with pies, quilts, and rural charm. Patchett weaves in country sayings and traditions, creating a warm atmosphere. Lara, despite her age, stands out in rural Michigan, adding to the unique character of the story. The book captures the essence of domestic happiness and generational ties.

Patchett’s subtle wisdom shines through the novel, offering insights into life’s truths and the importance of cherishing small moments. The narrative touches on the impact of human actions on the environment and the fleeting nature of time.

While not aiming to provoke, “Tom Lake” exudes a gentle reassurance, reminding readers of the beauty in everyday life and the connections that span generations. It’s a book that invites you to recline on a comfortable blanket and bask in the soothing glow of Patchett’s storytelling.

If you’re looking for book club discussion questions for Tom Lake, click here!