Ann Patchett’s “Tom Lake,” her first novel since 2019′s “The Dutch House,” is a gorgeously told and quietly devastating story of family, love, and identity. The book is unpretentious in its erudition, yet filled with allusions and galvanized by a passion for literature and theater, with Chekhov, Sam Shepard, and Thornton Wilder forming a kind of holy trinity of artistic influences. A searching reflection on the relationships between theater and life, romance and realism, “Tom Lake” is perhaps Patchett’s finest novel yet.
The novel begins in a small town in New Hampshire in the early 1980s; our narrator, Lara Kenison, is wrangled to help with the auditions for a community theater production of Wilder’s “Our Town.” Though she originally had no plans to act in the show, teenage Lara ends up being cast in the pivotal role of Emily, in large part due to her innocence and candor, because she doesn’t seem to be acting.
Emily, the smart, sweet, wholesome heroine who dies in childbirth in “Our Town”‘s third act, becomes a signature role for Lara. She plays it again in her third year of college, and is scouted by a director to fly out to LA for a screen test, then lands a big role in a major motion picture, once again because she is so “fresh, unspoiled.” Her third and last performance as Emily is in a Michigan summer stock production, in a town called Tom Lake. She’s in her mid-20s, beginning to have doubts about her future in such an aggressively competitive profession, acutely aware that her ingenue days are numbered.
During that fevered summer of 1988, Lara falls into a turbulent love affair with her costar in both “Our Town” and Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” the rakishly sexy, thrillingly alive, alarmingly unreliable Peter Duke. She also befriends her understudy, Pallas, a lithe, limber stunner who has to contend with doubters who say Emily can’t be Black and begins dating Sebastian, Peter’s tennis pro brother. The relatively grounded and sensible Sebastian and Lara struggle to manage their blazingly charismatic and unpredictable romantic partners. Lara doesn’t feel comfortable with the Method acting techniques championed by the others when embodying Shepard’s ravaged characters (heavy drinking and smoking are involved). She tries her best to act like an actress, but when she isn’t playing herself, her limitations become all too obvious.
Early on, we discover a trick in the chronology, that Lara’s acting experiences are in fact memories and she is now much older, married, with three twentysomething daughters, who’ve come home to the family cherry farm because of the coronavirus pandemic. Her reminiscences of the summer romance with Peter Duke, who became a major television and movie star idolized by her daughters, enliven the exhausting days of harvesting cherries and distract from the horrors of the pandemic during a “summer which [could] … be mistaken for the end of the world.” Three sisters, a family cherry orchard in danger of being lost because of debt, debates about the value of art and its relation to commerce, nostalgia for lost innocence and inchoate yearning — the Chekhovian atmosphere and elements leave their imprint on every page of Patchett’s novel.
Each sister echoes her mother in surprising ways. Emily, named after the good girl her mother played so convincingly, was ironically the most difficult daughter, seized at age 14 by a delusion that Peter Duke was her father, and constantly telling her parents that she “didn’t want to be stuck on a cherry orchard … [because] she had bigger ideas of the world.” Now, however, she runs the family farm and will wed a neighbor’s son. Tender-hearted Maisie is studying to be a veterinarian, which her mother once had longed to be. Nell, the youngest and an aspiring actress, is incredulous that her mother had so many lucky breaks yet gave it all up.
Throughout “Tom Lake,” art and life intersect, contradict, and implicate each other, both conceptually and textually. Some sentences are presented to us in italics, as stage directions. Lara’s husband, Joe, interrupts her storytelling “as if on cue”; Nell gives her mother prompts “as if this were an improv class.” College-age Lara felt that “everything in California was something out of a movie” and that her glamorous makeover for her Hollywood screen test was reminiscent of Dorothy and her friends getting “spruced up” in “the Merry Old Land of Oz.” One of Duke’s pickup lines to Lara — “we have plans” — “sounded so much like a line from a play”; lines from “King Lear” occur and reoccur to this parent of three girls. On stage and off, people perform, act, ham it up, stage scenes, direct those around them, inhabit roles they’re cast in by others. They struggle for control of the script and for access to the back story.
As the girls press their mother for juicy details and explanatory context, “mystified by what [she’s] … withheld from them” and begging her to “tell … [them] everything … [she’s] previously kept from” them, Lara contrarily “labor[s] to tell them as little as possible” while still satisfying their “voracious, limitless” curiosity. Even as she gives her daughters “the director’s cut” complete “with bonus tracks” accompanying the movie of her life, certain crucial features of the story remain secrets, confided only to us. This privileged intimacy between narrator and reader gives the novel a confessional urgency and a poignant heft. Exquisitely paced, “Tom Lake” builds inexorably to a conclusion with several genuinely shocking revelations that cast a light both unsettling and revelatory on all that’s come before.
At one point, Lara muses on how “Our Town” taught her that “suffering exists beside wet grass and a bright blue sky recently scrubbed by rain. … The beauty and the suffering are equally true.” Patchett’s rueful yet radiant novel contains much the same lesson. Earlier this year, when Patchett received the National Humanities Medal, the White House citation commended her “for putting into words the beauty, pain, and complexity of human nature.” She certainly has done so with grace, originality, and lambent honesty in “Tom Lake.”
TOM LAKE: A Novel
By Ann Patchett
Harper, 320 pages, $30
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy” and “The Critic’s Daughter.”