This book review of Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is meant both to give those who read it something more to reflect on, as well as to give those who did not yet read it helpful tips for indulging in this literary masterpiece. You’ll even get discussion questions for your book club.
- Reese’s Book Club pick
- #1 New York Times bestseller
Release Date: August 1, 2023
Tom Lake quickly became one of my top reads of 2023, to the surprise of no one who knows me — I am a huge Ann Patchett fan. And so, I wanted to sit down and further explore all of the thoughts and emotions I’m feeling just after the final sentence concluded. I also left feeling I could offer a few tips to new readers to improve their reading experience, including character descriptions, what format to read, and answers to questions about how it interacts with the play the characters perform in it, Our Town.
And, since I think a lot of people will be picking this one up for your book clubs, I have added some questions for you to discuss together or ruminate on your own.
So, let’s explore Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, a novel as alive and naturally beautiful as the flowers on its book cover.
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Tom Lake Summary
It’s the Spring of 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic has left the world quarantined, when three young women and sisters, Emily, Maisie, and Nell, hunker down at the Northern Michigan cherry farm of their parents, Lara and Joe Nelson.
The three Nelson daughters are distinct, and their unique qualities are as worthy of discerning as the March sisters in Little Women.
- Emily: the eldest, is a farmer with a fiery side, and she’s set to inherit the family farm.
- Maisie: the middle sister is a self-sufficient veterinarian in training.
- Nell: the youngest, is a fragile and emotional aspiring actress, reminiscent of her mother.
Patchett exquisitely describes them further:
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 gave 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. They might as well have been three birds.
Together in Michigan, the sisters help out on the farm, since their usual workers are scant and, to pass the time, they ask their mother to tell them the salacious story of the Summer of her past in which she dated the now-famous Hollywood actor, Peter Duke (“Duke”).
Thus, Lara begins the “story within a story” in this dual-timeline narrative. Back in the Summer of 1988, a youthful Lara had performed the famous American play, Our Town, on the stage with a theater company named Tom Lake, where she played the lead, Emily, and twenty-eight-year-old Duke played her father. Off stage, they shared the kind of intense relationship that is so often characteristic of youth.
Through the telling of this story, Lara reflects on the past, including what she remembers, what she does and does not want to re-tell, and how she feels about how her life has unfolded since that pivotal time. Meanwhile, her daughters learn that there are things about their mother they never knew.
Buy Tom Lake:
Tom Lake Book Review
Tom Lake is one of those books that starts off very good, then gets better and better as you become more immersed and invested in the story of Lara, eventually rising to the level of one of the best you’ve read all year.
If you know Patchett’s work, then you know this kind of storytelling is one of those things that only she can accomplish so well in the written word. Just a few months prior to this novel’s release, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal “for putting into words the beauty, pain, and complexity of human nature.” And, that’s exactly how Tom Lake reads.
It begins with three otherwise bored and homebound sisters seeking entertainment through a juicy and salacious story about their mother’s dating a celebrity before they were born (a celebrity!), but it becomes something that means so much more. Yet, throughout, Tom Lake also remains very subtle at the same time. Patchett’s restraint gives it that much more power.
Though Patchett began this novel prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, her ultimate use of it as the timing for this story was well-placed while also not making this a story about the pandemic. Known for exploring complex family dynamics and known for placing her unique characters in forced proximity, here, Patchett’s use of quarantine simply allowed for time and space for this family to come together, reflect on the past, and allow it to inform their present and future.
Often, stories are reminiscent of threads being woven together, but Tom Lake felt more to me like a tangled strand of jewelry that is delicately pulled apart, knot-by-knot, into one fine and delicate strand. And, I mean that in the best way possible. It was all right there all along, it just needed to be carefully laid out.
In looking back at the past, the Nelson family becomes able to find more meaning in the here and now. This reflection isn’t a “sliding door” metaphor about “what if” things happened differently — it’s clear from the outset that Lara’s life is better, and far more enriched, as it turned out. Her Summer at Tom Lake was but a fleeting moment of youth, and there’s no question she is meant to be a cherry farmer and the mother of these exact three young women. There is an especially poetic irony to this, as Our Town‘s Emily didn’t find meaning in the simplicity of life until it was too late.
In Tom Lake, while the past leads to the present, it is also just the past, and the pain of the past is just one of many things that occur in order to make way for the beauty that follows. Patchett captures this sentiment poignantly in the following passage:
There is no explaining this simple truth about life: you will forget much of it. The painful things you were certain you’d never be able to let go? Now you’re not entirely sure when they happened, while the thrilling parts, the heart-stopping joys, splintered and scattered and became something else. Memories are then replaced by different joys and larger sorrows, and unbelievably, those things get knocked aside as well.
Likewise, Lara intentionally doesn’t tell her daughters everything about her story, and there’s definitely one major plot twist she keeps to herself (and the reader), as is so often the case in real-life storytelling.
Lastly, I found it noteworthy that the Nelsons’ cherry farm houses a whole graveyard of cherished souls and that the third act of Our Town takes place at a graveyard. The point of Our Town is to find meaning in your family’s ordinary daily life occurrences before it’s too late and, in Tom Lake, those occurrences are ultimately appreciated in their re-telling and in forever keeping close those who experienced them.
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Tom Lake Audiobook Review
Ann Patchett has famous friends, and she puts them to good use! Her last book, The Dutch House, was exquisitely narrated by Tom Hanks and now, Tom Lake is narrated by Meryl Streep. (You can hear a sample in the Instagram post above.)
Naturally, I HAD to listen and, as expected, the narration was absolutely sublime. The voice of Lara comes across so tenderly, and the voices of the other characters never felt forced, which is often the case even with the best audiobook narrators out there.
I found myself so invested in hearing Lara tell this story in her own voice that I couldn’t turn it off. I felt like a child sitting crisscrossed on the floor at storytime just yearning to hear what happens next.
I heard Ann Patchett say she always envisioned Meryl’s voice as Lara’s, and I think she’s both absolutely right and lucky it worked out that Meryl actually read the book for her!
So, yes, I recommend the audiobook version, but I have to also say that Tom Lake is so delicately told, that I don’t think any of its beauty will be missed in print. I think it depends on whether you want a more immersive experience through Streep’s talented voice or a more reflective experience through the written word.
Personally, I plan to pick up a print copy to read as well, someday. Tom Lake is one book that I KNOW I want to experience again, and I know I will take new and different things from it in another format.
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Tom Lake and Our Town: Book Pairings
“Citizens of New Hampshire could not get enough of Our Town. We felt about the play the way other Americans felt about the Constitution or “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It spoke to us, made us feel special and seen.”
The real reason I decided to write a full blog post about Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is because I think so many readers will have questions about how it interacts with Our Town by Thornton Wilder, and I want to guide you to have the best reading experience.
I followed the trajectory defined in the image above — the reading of Our Town the play, followed by the watching of Our Town the movie adaptation (on Amazon Prime Video), followed by the reading of Tom Lake, and I definitely think this sequence makes for the best reading experience.
If you are ONLY going to read or watch Our Town, however, I recommend that you watch it OR read an analysis alongside the text, so you can get better context that is hard to gather from the dialogue of a play alone.
Our Town is a short and simple three-act American play that’s about ordinary life at the turn of the 20th Century in New Hampshire. Its themes include the fleeting nature of life, and how the seemingly little things are what give it meaning, so we should be appreciative and mindful of them before they’re gone.
Here are my answers to some questions you may have:
Yes. The plot, characters, and themes of Our Town by Thornton Wilder feature heavily in Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, and it only takes about an hour to read, so for the best reading experience of Tom Lake, you should read Our Town first.
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Tom Lake Book Club Questions
Did you read or watch Our Town too?
If so, did you draw any comparisons between Our Town and Tom Lake?
Of all plays, why do you think Patchett chose Our Town for Tom Lake?
If you’ve read Ann Patchett before, how did Tom Lake stack up for you?
Discuss the format by which you read Tom Lake.
Discuss the significance of the cherry farm setting.
Discuss the timing of COVID-19 in Tom Lake.
Did you identify most with any of the three daughters?
Tom Lake was decidedly not a “sliding doors” (What if?) type of novel. Why do you think Patchett made this choice and made it so clear to the reader?
Who would you cast in a movie adaptation?
Did the “story within a story” work for you?
Discuss any significance of the age difference between Lara and Duke.
What attracted Lara and Duke to each other?
Why did Lara end up with Joe?
Why did Tom Lake remain so memorable to the characters?
Describe Lara’s career path and how it, and she, changed over time.
Why does Lara tell her life story beyond that of her romantic relationship to her daughters?
Why does Lara keep certain parts of the story to herself?
How does Lara view the past?
How does Lara view the present?
Describe the reactions of Lara’s three daughters to her story.
How may this story differ from another character’s perspective?
Describe Lara’s view of motherhood.
Discuss Lara’s life view and what the reader can take from it.
Did each character “end up” the way you expected?
Frequently Asked Questions
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is about three adult daughters who return to their parent’s Michigan cherry farm during the pandemic. Their mother tells them the story of how she dated a famous actor in her youth at a Summer theater job. It’s a rumination on real love, how the past leads to the present, and what parts of a story to retell.
No. Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is a fictional novel.
The point of Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is that, in looking back at the past, one is able to find more meaning in the present.
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett explores themes of the meaning of real love, how the past leads to the present, and what parts of a story to retell.
Yes. Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is a top book club pick because it’s thought-provoking and offers a lot of topics to discuss, including the meaning of real love, growing up, finding joy in the present, and what things about the past are kept to oneself and way.
Yes. Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is an exquisitely written novel about past and the present, as well as the meaning of real love. It was a #1 New York Times bestseller and a Reese’s Book Club pick that remains highly rated by readers worldwide for its thought-provoking and heartwarming ruminations on life.
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is a masterful work of literary fiction that enforces the meaning of life through the kind of delicately layered storytelling for which she is so beloved. Whether you read it in audio or in print, and whether you read it before or after Our Town, just be sure to read it, then think about or discuss it too. It was a five-star read for me, as well as one of my favorite novels of Patchett’s and of the entire year.
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