ANN PATCHETT is the author of the bestselling novel The Dutch House which was longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize and Bel Canto, which won the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. Tom Lake is Ann’s highly anticipated new novel. It’s a deeply moving and profound meditation on young love, marriage and family, AKINA HANSEN writes.
In 2001 Ann Patchett’s literary career skyrocketed with the success of her award-winning novel Bel Canto, which sold a staggering million copies in the US and which went on to be translated into more than 30 languages.
She’s since established herself as a household name and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012. And it’s no wonder, her beloved books are poignant and moving stories that feature characters who are often driven by strong moral codes. I suspect this is much like Ann herself, who opened up Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore, in 2011 in a stance against the big chains like Amazon.
Since 2001 Ann has continued to produce a litany of critically and commercially successful novels from Run (2007), State of Wonder (2011), Commonwealth (2011), to The Dutch House (2019). And now Tom Lake.
‘Starting a novel is always the worst part for me and for whatever reason I decided to give the treadmill a try. It did wonders for my concentration. I felt like I was stepping into the novel every day, and when I finished work I stepped out of it. I think that walking occupies the restless part of my brain.’
Set in the Spring of 2020 in the height of the pandemic, Tom Lake follows Lara, her husband, Joe, and their three children, Emily, Maisie and Nell, who return home to their family’s cherry orchard where they spend their days together harvesting the fruit.
While there, Lara’s three daughters beg their mother to regale them with stories of Peter Duke, a famous actor who Lara once shared the stage and dated in her 20s.
The novel weaves between past and present, as Lara reminisces about her early acting career and time spent at a theatre company called Tom Lake where she performed in the play Our Town. Ann skillfully draws you in to the storytelling, inviting the reader to sit with Lara’s daughters as she shares her stories with them. I felt myself as eager as her daughters to learn more about Lara’s past.
The idea behind Tom Lake developed over a long time, much like Ann’s other novels. ‘I leave them on a back burner for years and they change and change … Every part of the story changed except the connection to Our Town. I’ve gone back to that play my entire life and it always teaches me something. The play was the constant for me.’
Originally created in 1938 by American playwright Thornton Wilder, Our Town is about marriage, love, and appreciating life. It’s worth noting that while the play is central to the novel, you don’t need to be familiar with it to follow Tom Lake. In fact, Ann does a wonderful job at balancing this.
When Lara first arrives at Tom Lake, she meets the handsome and charming Peter Duke. And she’s immediately enamoured by his wild and spontaneous ways, quickly falling in love.
In a real sense, the novel is about the difference between exuberant, youthful passion and married love.
Ann shares that Tom Lake is ‘about the different ways we can experience love at different times of our life – if we’re lucky.
The daughters love their father but they can’t imagine anyone more thrilling than Duke. They’re certain, at least at the beginning, that Lara must have wanted to spend her life with Duke. But you can never spend your whole life with guys like Duke.’
As the novel progresses, Duke’s enigma and charisma wear away as we see how his affections for Lara dwindle and he begins to tire of her. His attentions are instead redirected to someone more ‘new and shiny’ so to speak. It’s perhaps an experience that many people can relate to – the devasting heartbreak of first love. A love that is often unbridled and all consuming.
‘In a real sense, the novel is about the difference between exuberant, youthful passion and married love. What Joe and Lara have is my idea of love, but then again I’m old, and I’ve been married a long time,’ Ann says.
Indeed, the contrast between Lara’s early years in the theatre and the calm of the orchard, reaffirms Lara’s own life decisions and helps her daughters reconsider their own perceptions and beliefs.
‘Over the years I’ve made close friends in the area. It’s one of my favourite places. When I started writing the book, my friend Erin took me to see a family fruit farm. I wanted to live there. Pretty much all the physical details of the Nelson farm are based on the Wunsch farm.’
And while the setting is beautiful, it’s important to note that the novel is set during an especially difficult time for the world – the pandemic. And yet despite this, it ultimately brings the family together and allows them to connect on a deeper level.
‘None of them wanted to move home, they just didn’t have a choice. I moved home to live with my mother when I was 25. My life had fallen apart and she took me in. My childhood home was long gone (we moved often) and she lived in a house I had only visited before. I slept in the guest room, got a job as a waitress. My grandmother was living with my mother as well. I was a wreck but looking back now I remember it as a sweet time because the three of us were together,’ says Ann.
Tom Lake is a moving story about young love, marriage, and family. And it’s a thoughtful and introspective look into relationships and the truths we tell ourselves and others.
We learn that there are certain details Lara withholds when telling her story, but that we the reader are privy to. And it’s within this space that Ann demonstrates her skill in understanding and capturing the complexities of the human condition.
Ultimately Tom Lake shows us that while life doesn’t always go the way that you planned, you should never lose hope, or for that matter, joy, as life is filled with so many better and brighter days.
As Ann so rightly puts it: ‘There is so much goodness. When I turn away from the headlines and talk to my neighbours, talk to the people who come to the bookstore and work in the bookstore, talk to my family and friends, pretty much all I see is kindness. There are plenty of brilliant books that represent the current state of hopelessness and despair. I write books about the sort of people I actually know. There’s nothing wrong with that.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ann Patchett is the author of nine novels. She was the editor of Best American Short Stories, 2006, and has written four books of nonfiction.
Patchett has been the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including a National Humanities Medal, England’s Women’s Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Book Sense Book of the Year, a Guggenheim Fellowship, The Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize, The Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, the American Bookseller’s Association’s Most Engaging Author Award, and the Women’s National Book Association’s Award.
In November, 2011, she opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, with her business partner Karen Hayes. She has since become a spokesperson for independent booksellers, championing books and bookstores.
Ann Patchett lives in Nashville with her husband, Karl VanDevender, and their dog, Sparky.