Review of ‘Tom Lake’ by Ann Patchett | The master storyteller invokes a mix of admiration and resentment in her reader

In this account of an account set in the COVID-19 pandemic, Patchett starts at the core, proceeding to add layer upon layer, resulting in shocking revelations and surprises galore

Published - October 06, 2023 09:50 am IST

Author Ann Patchett

Author Ann Patchett | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It can be stated without exaggeration that Ann Patchett can write a grocery list and it would be immensely readable. But it is when writing about family that Patchett truly shines. 

Whether it is a personal essay about her three fathers or the exploration of the sometimes dark corners of childhood, Patchett has the ability to go deep as well as stay light, so much so that it is only after you have finished reading that you realise you were on a rollercoaster ride all along. She is a master of her craft and in her latest venture, the novel Tom Lake (delightfully narrated by actor Meryl Streep in the audiobook), she deploys the entire arsenal of tools she has developed over the decades.

No matter the form — essay, memoir or novel — Patchett is a storyteller and when we encounter the protagonist of Tom Lake, she too is in the middle of telling a story. Lara, who used to be Laura before she dropped the ‘u’ (an uncommon side-effect of reading Doctor Zhivago), is telling her three grown daughters the story of how she used to be an actress before she became their mother. The pandemic has hit the world and the whole family is together in their cherry farm in northern Michigan. The girls — young women in their early 20s — found out as children that their mother once dated the famous actor, Peter Duke, a fact that was casually mentioned by their father. Ever since, they have been intensely curious about the story. The long hours spent picking cherries in the farm during COVID-19 provide the perfect foil for the whole story of Lara and Duke.

Role of a lifetime

As a schoolgirl, Lara is selected to play the character of Emily in a local theatre production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (often described as the greatest American play ever written). She is very good, and then as these things sometime happen, even though she is not an ambitious, aspiring actress, she gets a chance to play Emily again in college, where an uncle of a cast member, who also happens to be a Hollywood talent scout, spots her and offers her a movie. Lara tries it out, not in the driven way of regular Hollywood aspirants, but in that loosey-goosey manner in which talented young people try life on. 

The cast of an undated Broadway production of Thornton Wilder’s classic ‘Our Town’.

The cast of an undated Broadway production of Thornton Wilder’s classic ‘Our Town’. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

She shoots a movie and while waiting for the great Hollywood machinery to move to production and post-production, she bags a role, once again as Emily, in a summer stock production — that uniquely American cultural phenomenon, where for four months in summer, young actors take up residence and play a character or two in a local theatre. It is here she meets Duke, talented and handsome, who will go on to become one of the greatest actors of his time.

This is all, of course, an account of an account. Because while we are listening to Lara tell her daughters the story of her life, Patchett is also telling us about Lara’s life outside of what was going on in that relationship. 

Many revelations

As a narrative practice, even though it’s common, peeling an onion is a difficult thing to do. But in Tom Lake, Patchett reverses that exercise. She starts with the core of the onion and then proceeds to add layer upon layer, so much so that even the origin story of the names of the girls are revelatory exercises for the reader. I found myself gasping at times; reading Patchett is often a unique mix of admiration and resentment at how easily she manipulates you.

In both the plotting and the presentation of Tom Lake, only one thing grated at me — the immense positivity of all the characters, especially Lara and her husband, Joe. They are like those motivational messages that still arrive on some of our WhatsApp groups, eternally shiny and immeasurably good. There is nothing Lara does or says that is not wholesome, so much so that it feels like this cannot be real. But readers who have kept up with Patchett’s essays know that the author herself is guilty of some of this unattainable wholesomeness. 

She opened an independent bookshop to take on the big corporations in Nashville, she nursed Tom Hanks’s assistant during her cancer treatment (true story), and right now, while on the publicity rounds for Tom Lake, she is also taking along a young novelist, whose first book is out, in order to give her a bump up. No one should be this good. Neither Patchett, nor Lara.

The reviewer is the author of Independence Day: A People’s History.

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