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Posted on 8 Aug 2023 in Fiction |

ANN PATCHETT Tom Lake. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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A mother tells her daughters the story of her past – or some of it – in this new novel from the author of The Dutch House.

‘Wait, wait, wait, you wanted to be a vet?’ Maisie shakes her head. ‘You never wanted to be a vet. You never said that before.’ Maisie will begin her third year of veterinary school in the fall, if in fact there is school in the fall …

My girls have directed me to start the story at the beginning when they have no interest in the beginning. They want to hear the parts they want to hear with the rest cut out to save time. ‘If you think you can do a better job then tell the story yourself,’ I say, standing, though not in a punitive way. I stretch my hands up over my head. ‘The three of you can tell it to one another.’

Lara (Laura Kenison / Lara Kenison / Lara Nelson), like her creator, Ann Patchett, is an expert storyteller. She knows how to pace the telling and how to end each part leaving her girls desperate to know more; and she knows each of them well enough to know how they will react, so she knows what to include, what to leave out – and what secrets to keep to herself. ‘Even though they are grown women and very forward thinking,’ she tells us, ‘let’s just assume I leave out every mention of the bed.’ The bed, however, does feature in her untold memories, as does another secret.

It is cherry-picking time on the Nelsons’ family farm in Michigan; and it is pandemic time, too, so many of the families that usually come to help are not there. ‘Circumstances,’ says Lara,

… have shifted from Here are our daughters and we are so glad to have them home, to Here are our daughters, who spent their childhood picking cherries and know how to do the job when only a fraction of our regular workers have come this year for seasonal employment.

There is so much work to be done that Lara pictures Joe, her husband, as wearing the whole responsibility of the farm on his head like ‘a giant parquet dance floor’: the ripe fruit must be picked, the branches pruned, fertilising and weeding must be done, and the workers who have come must be fed and their welfare and that of their children considered. There is a barn ‘full of broken machinery along with the new tractor we can’t afford’ and university fees to pay, so everyone must help. Lara’s storytelling fills the hot, and sometimes wet, hours as she and the girls pick cherries into buckets hung round their necks on canvas straps, then tip the full buckets into lugs that Joe will collect and drive to the barn to be sold by the agricultural co-op.

A chance remark by Joe when the girls were much younger has led to this storytelling. The family had always watched films starring Peter Duke, a famous movie star. ‘You know your mother used to date him,’ Joe had told the girls after walking in at the end of one of their home movie-watching sessions. ‘We were in a play together,’ Lara had said, trying to defuse the excitement:

‘So you didn’t date him,’ Emily corrected. ‘You knew him.’

I shrugged. The girls believed we were so old then, their father and I, that they took into account we might not remember our own lives. ‘We dated while we were in a play.’

He carried my books. He walked me home. We kissed.

When they finally went back to watch the movie, Duke was no longer just the Popcorn King. He was the man who had once eaten ice-cream with their mother.

Lara notes that ‘the high tide of Duke’ lasted for weeks after that, then receded but never quite went away. Now that she and the girls are working together, they revive their old interest and insist she tells them more.

‘More’, in this book, is so much more. Ann Patchett immerses the reader in Lara’s early world where, as a teenager, she makes a sudden decision to audition for the part of Emily in a community theatre production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. She is a natural for the part, and her uncle, who is a movie director, sees her in the play and organises a screen test for her in Los Angeles. There, she is picked up at the airport and driven to a hotel in an ‘honest-to-god’ limousine. Next day, at the Warner Brothers’ sound studio, she is professionally made up, dressed, and ‘transformed into someone who looked like my more attractive first cousin’. It is all thrilling, and she gets the part, but the film is interminably delayed. Her uncle then puts her in touch with an agent, who finds her work in two commercials that have ‘national spots’ and in two ‘forgettable sitcoms’.

Eventually, frustrated, and with her acting ‘career’ stalled, Lara takes the advice of her uncle (again) and moves to New York to try for the part of Emily in a Broadway production of Our Town. She doesn’t get that part: ‘What you need to remember,’ says her uncle’s old schoolmate who had watched her screen-test, ‘is that everything’s a fix …They say they want someone new but you’re too new.’ However, he knows she is good, and he is scouting for a replacement ‘Emily’ for the director of a ‘summer stock theatre’ production of Our Town at Tom Lake in Michigan. ‘You’d have to go immediately,’ he tells her. Tom Lake, of course, is where she meets and falls in love with Peter Duke.

Lara’s memories of that time are interspersed with her descriptions of the work she and her girls are doing on the farm, and with her daughters’ reactions to her story. The girls’ individual personalities, hopes and plans emerge through their questions and their sibling joshing.

I’ve laid out the entire summer at Tom Lake with bonus tracks on either side. I’ve given my girls the director’s cut.

Nell shifts her feet in the wet grass. ‘You don’t ever think you made a mistake?’ she asks.

‘Oh, come on. All that and you still think I should’ve been an actress?’

‘I think being an actress sounds like a nightmare,’ Emily says.

The three of us look at Maisie to break the tie. ‘I’d take a shitting calf any day,’ she says.

So I have won over two of my girls. As for the third, Nell thinks everyone secretly longs for the stage.

Emily, at twenty-six, is taking a horticulture and agribusiness management course and plans, eventually, to take over the farm. She and Bennie, a young man from the adjacent farm, live together in an old cottage close to the main house. Maisie, who will be a vet, is twenty-four, and has currently made herself available to help local people with animal problems, so she is often called on for unpleasant tasks. Nell, twenty-two, who is most like Lara and seems to have an almost telepathic understanding of her, is ‘very good at being anyone at all’, and plans to be an actress.

 Joe, too, is very much part of Lara’s story and of her present life, and their relaxed, loving interactions make a stable backdrop to Lara’s story of meeting and loving Peter Duke, and the excitement, the hard work and the characters of the people she knew whilst part of the theatre group at Tom Lake.

Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake is a gentle exploration of memory, of love, of the joys and the pains of life, and of the unexpected ways in which things happen and life changes. It is also a reflection of the way children tend to see their parents, knowing nothing of their youthful adventures and early love lives; and the way some secrets are kept, through love and the desire not to hurt others, but also, as Lara says, because ‘What I did was mine alone to do.’

Ann Patchett Tom Lake Bloomsbury 2023 PB 320pp $32.99 

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages ( are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Tom Lake from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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