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Tom Lake: Summary and Character Guide

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Ann Patchett, a well-known author, has written many books, and Tom Lake is her 13th novel. Her writing is known for exploring relationships within small groups, often focusing on family.

Ann started writing when she was in college and has written both fiction and nonfiction. One of her most famous books is Bel Canto, published in 2001, which won awards and was even made into a movie in 2018. In 2012, she was listed as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

In this guide we will go through the complete summary and character analysis of Tom Lake! I’ve also attached a link to my personal review, and book club discussion guide for this novel. Enjoy! ✨

Summary | Characters

Book Review | Book Club Questions

Tom Lake Summary

The story of Tom lake unfolds in the year 2020 during the COVID pandemic. Lara Nelson, along with her husband Joe and their daughters Emily, Maisie, and Nell, decide to isolate themselves on their family farm in northern Michigan.

They are busy working to harvest cherries from their orchard, facing challenges as more than half of their seasonal workers couldn’t return due to the pandemic. The family has to work extra hard to hand-pick delicate cherries that cannot be frozen for shipping and must be sold fresh.

During the cherry-picking, Lara shares a story with her daughters about the summer when she dated Peter Duke, a famous movie star who recently passed away. Lara had a brief acting career that started in high school when she played Emily in a community theater production of “Our Town.”

Her acting journey continued in college when she was discovered by a movie director and taken to Los Angeles for a film. Despite the film’s delayed release, Lara returned home to New Hampshire after spending a few years in LA.

When Lara auditioned for the Broadway production of “Our Town,” she didn’t get the part of Emily but was offered a role at Tom Lake, a summer stock theater in Michigan. During her time there, she met and fell in love with Peter Duke, who was then a young, unknown actor. Their summer romance was passionate but ended abruptly when Lara got injured and had to step down from her role.

Pallace, Lara’s understudy dating Sebastian, Duke’s brother, took over the role and also became involved with Duke. Despite the intense events, the four of them—Lara, Duke, Sebastian, and Pallace—visited the family farm of Joe Nelson, their director, before Duke disappeared from Lara’s life.

A few years later, Lara and Joe Nelson fell in love and left the theater to run Joe’s family farm. They didn’t hear from Lara’s ex, Duke, after he visited the farm when Lara’s daughters were young.

While wrapping up the cherry harvest, Lara recalls one more encounter with Duke. After their relationship ended, Duke contacted Lara from a rehab center in Boston, where he was dealing with alcohol addiction. Lara visited him, and after a brief encounter, she discovered she was pregnant, had an abortion, but kept it a secret.

Throughout the year, Maisie, studying veterinary medicine, helps treat neighbors’ animals. Emily and her boyfriend, Benny, announce their wedding plans. Nell, an actor, struggles with the pandemic’s isolation. When Emily decides not to have children due to climate change and the pandemic, it deeply affects Joe and Lara, who had envisioned passing down the family farm.

However, as the novel concludes, an unexpected twist occurs, expanding their family in a surprising manner. Sebastian arrives at the farm with Duke’s ashes, and the old bond between him and Lara is immediately rekindled.

To everyone’s surprise, Sebastian discloses that, for years after his initial visit, Duke had persistently attempted to purchase the farm. Eventually, he agreed to pay a considerable sum, enough for Lara and Joe to retire comfortably, for a burial plot in their family cemetery.

Though initially shocked, upon reflection, Lara and Joe find the gesture fitting. They decide to lay Duke to rest on the family farm, and Lara extends an offer to Sebastian, ensuring he has a place there when his time comes.

Tom Lake Characters

Lara Nelson

Lara Nelson, also known as Laura Kenison, is the main character in the novel “Tom Lake.” In the current story, she is 57 years old, and the embedded narrative recounts her experiences from high school when she first played Emily in “Our Town” to the summer at Tom Lake when she turned 25.

Lara has complicated relationships with her daughters, especially Emily, named after the role Lara played during an important coming-of-age time in her youth. The novel explores their conflicts, eventual reconciliation, and mutual understanding, focusing on the theme of how daughters reflect and refract their mothers.

As Lara opens up throughout the story, she shares more about her life with her daughters, realizing that they only had a basic understanding of her history and had filled in the gaps with assumptions. By telling her history, Lara builds a closer connection with her daughters.

Lara is honest about her feelings, even if they seem inappropriate at times. While she is aware of her motivations, she often reacts impulsively, occasionally appearing thoughtless. For instance, during a conversation about pandemic isolation with her daughter Nell, Lara asks a seemingly insensitive question, realizing later that she projected her own feelings onto Nell.

Despite the global pandemic setting, Lara doesn’t deny the joy of having her entire family at home, something she didn’t expect. She is particularly possessive of the story she tells her daughters about her summer at Tom Lake, prompting readers to ponder the question of who owns personal history.

While shaping the narrative for her audience, Lara withholds some parts but remains truthful about what she does reveal. As she learns to let go of control over her story, Lara discovers surprising details from Joe and Sebastian that she never knew before.

Emily Nelson

Emily Nelson, who is 26 years old, is the oldest of Lara’s three daughters. When she was younger, she surprised her parents, Lara and Joe, by expressing her desire to take over the family farm. She pursued her goal by earning degrees in horticulture and agribusiness at Michigan State University.

Currently, Emily lives in a smaller house on the farm with her partner, Benny, whose family owns the neighboring farm. However, Emily’s decision not to have children with Benny has created tension, as her parents see this choice as the end of the family legacy that has lasted for six generations.

Emily’s interest in preserving the farm is driven by concerns about the future and her commitment to combating climate change. Despite her parents’ disappointment about the lack of heirs to continue the family line, Emily remains focused on saving the farm.

The relationship between Emily and her mother, Lara, is complicated due to Emily’s teenage infatuation with someone named Duke. This past obsession has left lingering tensions within the family, and they often tread carefully around Emily.

However, as the novel progresses, Lara shares the story of her own history with Duke, leading to a deeper connection between mother and daughter. By the end of the story, Emily’s idealized perception of Duke is shattered, and she and Lara have a renewed and more intimate relationship.

Maisie Nelson

Maisie Nelson, at 24 years old, is the middle child of Lara and Joe. She’s already two years into veterinary school when the family comes back to the farm. The uncertainty caused by the pandemic makes Lara mention that Maisie will start her third year of veterinary school in the fall, assuming there is school at all.

Throughout the story, Maisie becomes the go-to person for veterinary help among friends and neighbors. Due to the pandemic, people are hesitant to have strangers in their homes, so Maisie steps in to assist. What stands out is Maisie’s kindness and compassion. She’s always available, day or night, to care for her neighbors’ animals. Instead of taking money, she accepts non-monetary payments.

Maisie is named after Joe’s aunt, who used to own the cherry farm and had a deep connection with Lara. Lara attributes much of the older Maisie’s strong and reliable character to her daughter. Lara admires Maisie’s logical and strong nature, highlighting her ability to handle challenges without worry. Lara is confident about Maisie’s dependability and fearlessness, especially when it comes to dealing with subjects like chemistry or taking care of sick calves.

Nell Nelson

Nell Nelson is the youngest daughter of Lara and Joe, aged 22. She’s just starting her career as an actor, but the pandemic derails her plans. Unlike her sisters Emily and Maisie, Nell can’t work on the farm, making her feel purposeless. Despite this, she maintains a positive attitude and jokes that she went to college to avoid picking cherries.

Physically small like her mother Lara, Nell is treated as the baby of the family and somewhat coddled. Lara is protective of her, fearing she might break something fragile in Nell. Despite this, Nell is determined to pursue her passion for acting. Lara notices Nell’s dedication to her craft, even while doing mundane tasks like picking cherries.

Nell, driven by her desire to be an actor, resents her mother for effortlessly entering and leaving the career Nell aspires to. Nell’s acting skills and understanding of storytelling give her insight into Lara’s life, making her a thoughtful and intelligent reader of her mother’s experiences. Nell’s ability to foresee events adds depth to her character.

Joe Nelson

Joe Nelson is Lara’s husband, initially introduced in Lara’s story as Nelson, the director of the play “Our Town” at Tom Lake. His standout qualities include his stability and constancy, with Lara noting that Joe has changed the least over time. Joe is a trustworthy and understated person, making him an excellent director and Stage Manager. Unlike Duke, who seeks attention, Joe never draws the spotlight to himself.

Despite being a renowned theater director, Joe chose to walk away from that career to manage his family’s farm. When Nell questions his decision, Joe explains that he had the opportunity to live multiple fulfilling lives, and he has no regrets. Symbolically, he embodies the farm, smelling like the cherry orchard. However, the responsibility of running the farm weighs heavily on him, especially during the pandemic when the workforce is significantly reduced.

Joe’s concerns extend to the farm’s future, compounded by Emily’s announcement that she won’t be having children. While relieved that Emily is willing to take over the farm, her decision affects Joe deeply, casting uncertainty on the farm’s future. Despite the challenges, Joe dedicates long hours to farm work, emphasizing the pressure he feels and the impact of the pandemic on their livelihood.

Peter Duke

Peter Duke is a central character in the story, even though he doesn’t physically appear in the present. He was Lara’s first love, a charming guy who became a famous actor but struggled with alcohol. His alcohol problem became evident when he started drinking during rehearsals for a play. Lara suggests that his life fell apart, possibly leading to his death by suicide.

When Duke first visited Lara’s family farm, he was fascinated, feeling like he had imagined their family life when he was a child. Duke tried to buy the farm multiple times.

In the end, he’s buried in the family cemetery on the farm. Lara acknowledges that he was right, as there’s enough space for everyone there. Duke’s burial provides closure for both the family and the reader.

Happy reading! ❤️