The play’s the thing in Ann Patchett’s ‘Tom Lake’

A mother’s story of her youthful affair with a movie star will enthrall her adult daughters, and readers, in the novelist’s latest book.
Ann Patchett's latest novel is "Tom Lake."
Ann Patchett's latest novel is "Tom Lake." [ Emily Dorio ]
Published Aug. 10

Children, even grown ones, don’t often want to hear about their parents’ lives before they married — especially their sex lives.

But Lara Nelson’s three daughters are different. They know that before she married their kind and steadfast father and gave birth to them, she had a love affair with a movie star, as well as a brief acting career of her own. Now in their 20s, Lara’s girls want the dirt.

Lara’s story and how she tells it are the matter of Ann Patchett’s enveloping new novel, “Tom Lake.”

This is Patchett’s ninth novel, after such acclaimed bestsellers as “Bel Canto” and “The Dutch House.” She has also published four nonfiction books, including “These Precious Days” and “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” and two children’s books. She’s the proprietor of Nashville’s beloved Parnassus Books and a leader in the independent bookstore community.

Patchett often frames her novels around a particular world, such as the opera-infused plot of “Bel Canto.” In “Tom Lake” much of Lara’s story is set in the world of theater, and three plays are essential: Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.”

The novel is set in the summer of 2020, when the world is in lockdown amid the COVID pandemic. Lara (who narrates the novel) tells the reader she knows that “joy is inappropriate these days and still, we feel what we feel.” She’s relieved and happy that all of her daughters have come to live with her and their father on the family farm in Michigan, where the main business is the cherry orchard.

Emily, the oldest, lives there anyway — she’s ready to take over the farm, which has been in the family for generations, when her parents retire. Maisie, the middle one, is a veterinary student whose classes are on hold, but she’s getting some practical training when neighbors call her in the middle of the night to deliver breach-birth calves and the like. Nell, the youngest, has followed the career her mother abandoned: acting.

Born just a few years apart, the three have always been close, and they slip easily back into banter and affection. When Lara pauses in her story, she says, “The girls groan in harmony. It’s their best trick.”

They’re all pitching in to harvest the sweet cherry crop. Only a few of the usual seasonal work crews have shown up because of the pandemic, and the work is back-breaking. Tart cherries can be harvested en masse with a shaker, but the sweet ones must be picked by hand.

So while they’re picking, and while they’re resting in the evenings, Lara spins out the story of her relationship with Peter Duke.

The story begins when she’s a teenager in a small New Hampshire town and is cast, almost accidentally, in the starring role of Emily in a local production of “Our Town.”

She tells us, “Citizens of New Hampshire could not get enough of ‘Our Town.’ We felt about the play the way other Americans felt about the Constitution or the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ It spoke to us, made us feel special and seen.”

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Although she hasn’t studied acting, she shines in the part. She also attracts the attention of Ripley, a Hollywood producer who’s been dragged to the play by a relative and is pleasantly surprised to discover Lara (who has already dropped the “u” in her given name for the stage, because she was reading “Dr. Zhivago” when she made the spontaneous decision to audition).

Suddenly Lara, who up to now has worked after school in her grandmother’s seamstress shop and hoped to go to a state college, is swept up like a girl in a fairy tale (or a movie) to Hollywood for a part in a film with an unnamed major female star.

But that’s not where she meets the movie star she falls in love with. Her big movie is delayed in post-production, and after a couple of years working in sitcoms and commercials in California and a near-miss of a big part on Broadway, she ends up at a well-regarded summer stock theater in Tom Lake, Michigan, to once again play Emily in “Our Town.”

And that’s where she meets Duke. Smitten is hardly the word; their relationship is a hurricane of lust on what she calls summer stock time, accelerated because the season is so short.

Duke isn’t just handsome; theater companies teem with handsome men. He’s wildly charismatic, quirky, romantic, adventurous and, to 24-year-old Emily, irresistible. He is also, she will learn to her sorrow, oblivious to monogamy. But in the meantime, he becomes her world.

When they meet, Duke isn’t famous yet, although Lara and everyone else is certain he will be. After they part, he goes on to a stellar career that ranges from popular children’s movies (which is how Lara’s daughters first know about him) to serious character roles and a few typical Hollywood scandals.

Lara’s daughters want to hear the story of her and Duke in part because he’s famous, but there’s a twist. They first heard about the romance years ago, and when Emily was 14, “a beast, a teenage girl so riven with hormones and rage,” most of it directed at her mother, in the way of teenage girls, she became convinced that Duke was her real father and insisted Lara send her to live with him.

She’s long since over that — the timeline of the relationship makes it impossible — but her questions linger. And there’s another reason for their interest now that Patchett deftly conceals until it will be most powerful. So Lara tells the story, “knowing full well that the parts they’re waiting to hear are the parts I’m never going to tell them.”

But she might, dear reader, tell us. And break our hearts a little.

She also tells us, quietly threaded amid the drama of the story of Duke, about her other romance, her long and deeply loving marriage. “Good marriages are never as interesting as bad affairs,” Lara notes, but Patchett does surprise us with how she ties the two stories together — she’s as good at plot twists and suspense as many a mystery writer.

As in all her novels, Patchett’s prose is elegant, her wit abundant, her sense of family dynamics and the complexities of love subtle and insightful. “Tom Lake” is an enthralling story even if you’re not one of Lara’s daughters.

Tom Lake

By Ann Patchett

Harper, 320 pages, $30