Tom Lake by Ann Patchett: A review
Ann Patchett's latest book, Tom Lake, is set during the current pandemic and the action takes place in a cherry orchard in Michigan. Similarities to Chekhov's play, The Cherry Orchard, are most definitely intentional.
The story concerns former actress Lara Kenison and her husband Joe Nelson and their three grown-up daughters, Emily, Nell, and Maisie. The pandemic has brought all of the family together on the farm to shelter in place. Because of the pandemic, Joe has not been able to bring in the migrant workers who normally help to gather the cherries and so the family works to try to take up the slack and get the crop in.
As they work, the daughters press their mother to entertain them by telling them of the time when she worked in a summer theater production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town in Tom Lake, Michigan. Also in the cast was an actor named Peter Duke who was an unknown at the time but later became quite famous. During their time in the play, Lara had a brief romance with Duke.
Lara's story of that time is interspersed between present-day events of the family's life and their work in the orchard. The family's interactions also reveal more about the three daughters and their own aspirations for their lives. Emily, the oldest of the daughters, plans to take over running the farm in the future. The middle daughter, Maisie, is studying to be a veterinarian. The youngest, Nell, wants to be an actress.
Tom Lake is Lara's first-person perspective and as such we are privy to her memories and her thoughts about them. We also share her private deliberations on just how much of her past to tell her daughters about.
This is a character-driven narrative and each of the family member's characters is fully developed. It is a slow-paced story and is very much attuned to the times in which we live. Patchett seems intent on getting us to slow down and think about things, to think about what we are reading and how these pandemic times will continue to play out in our lives.
All in all, I found this to be a very satisfying and affecting story. I liked the Kenison-Nelson family quite a lot. It was hard to put the book down and I was sad to see it end.