Earlier this year, Patchett received the National Humanities Medal for, among other contributions to the literary world, her ability to put “into words the beauty, pain, and complexity of human nature.” This generous writer hits the mark again with her ninth novel.
“Tom Lake” revolves around a central love story, one that Lara Kenison tells her three daughters, Emily, Maisie and Nell, in installments over the long, strange summer of 2020 on the family-run cherry farm in Michigan. It is the story of her affair with a famous actor named Peter Duke, which took place when both were in summer stock at Tom Lake, Mich., when Lara was just 19 years old. The girls have heard parts of it before, but this time they’re getting the full account. Lara starts at the very beginning, when she played Emily in a community theater production of “Our Town,” which led to a brief career in Hollywood and then a reprisal of the role of Emily at Tom Lake. Duke, a handsome hunk on the runway to a huge career, was playing Editor Webb, her father.
As did many a mother during the coronavirus years, Lara is enjoying the pandemic-driven return of her girls to their mother’s arms. “All three of our girls are home now. Emily came back to the farm after she graduated from college, while Maisie and Nell, still in school, returned in March.” And while the girls are anxiously following the nightly news, their mother’s feelings about the pandemic are mixed. She can’t “pretend that all of us being together doesn’t fill me with joy. I understand that joy is inappropriate these days and still, we feel what we feel.”
Though mothers have been important characters in a couple of Patchett novels (“The Magician’s Assistant” comes to mind), “Tom Lake” is her first with a narrator who is a mother — a mother whose maternal role and emotions are at the core of who she is.
This is interesting in light of Patchett’s real-life feelings about motherhood. As she wrote in “There Are No Children Here,” a striking essay from her 2021 collection, “These Precious Days,” “Part of not wanting children has always been the certainty that I didn’t have the energy for it, and so I had to make a choice, the choice between children and writing.”
That’s one of the nice things about fiction writing, though — there’s plenty of opportunity to become someone else, make different choices and explore a different life, in this case someone with three beloved daughters. “Emily is tall like her father, strong enough to hoist full lugs all day long. Maisie is smaller than her older sister, though by no means small, and her curls give her extra stature. Nell is like me, or Nell is like I was. It’s as if the genetic material from which these girls were made diminished with every effort, so that the eldest daughter is strapping and the middle is middling and the youngest is a wisp.”
Knowing Patchett’s personal history with motherhood makes the fullness of the maternal feelings she imagines for Lara Kenison particularly poignant. In one beautiful passage, Lara comforts her youngest, Nell: “I want to tell her she will never be hurt, that everything will be fair, and that I will always, always be there to protect her. No one sees us but the swallows looping overhead. She puts her arms around my waist and we stand there, just like that, casting a single shadow across the grass.”
A single shadow across the grass — as if one’s child could be part of you again, the way they were in the first place.
Though Lara tells her husband, Joe, that she’s leaving out “the good parts” from this version of the tale — “By which you mean sex,” says Joe — there’s no way to tell the story without giving a general sense of the heat between Peter Duke and Lara, so hot that it crept into their portrayal of father and daughter onstage.
The two of them become half of a foursome when Peter’s tennis-pro brother, Sebastian, begins dating Pallas, a Black dancer from the company, and eventually things get complicated. And things get broken. And Peter and Lara are shot out the other side of their headlong romance, into their individual futures.
It’s interesting to think about “Tom Lake” alongside “Bel Canto,” the prizewinning 2001 novel that was Patchett’s breakout. From a distance they seem so different, one about a hostage situation in South America complete with guns and violence, and the other about a family on a farm in Michigan. Except that because of the pandemic, the family is also in a kind of hostage situation — a suspension of ordinary life. And both stories are fundamentally about how love begins, and what happens to it after that.
Ann Patchett’s wisdom about love has run though all of her novels and nonfiction books, including the great “Truth and Beauty” and “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.” As soon as you finish “Tom Lake,” you should go back and read them all.
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