Pinterest Hidden ImagePinterest Hidden Image

Learn what happens in Tom Lake, an absolutely mesmerizing Ann Patchett book — a #1 New York Times bestselling Reese’s book club selection. And, this Tom Lake summary gives the basic plot and a character guide to help you read this literary masterpiece. It’s time to take your reading experience to the next level. Let’s “travel” to Tom Lake!

tom lake by ann patchett held up in a reading room.

Quick Tom Lake Summary (Without Spoilers)

Quarantined together in Michigan in Spring 2020, the Nelson sisters (Emily, Maisie, and Nell) help out on the family’s cherry farm, since their usual workers are scant and, to pass the time, they ask their mother, Lara, 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.

Tom Lake Characters

Below is an image of the Tom Lake characters, which you can download or share, followed by more detailed character descriptions.

list of main characters in tom lake by ann patchett.

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, 57-year-old Lara (formerly Laura Kenison) and Joe Nelson.

(The audiobook is narrated by actress Meryl Streep as Lara.)

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 at age 26, is a farmer with a fiery side, and she’s set to inherit the family farm. She lives on the farm with her boyfriend, Benny, whose family owns the farm next door.
  • Maisie: the middle sister at age 24 is a strong and self-sufficient veterinarian in training.
  • Nell: the youngest at age 22 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. 

The Nelson sisters ask their mother, Lara, to tell them the salacious story of the summer of her past in which she dated the now-famous Hollywood actor, Peter Duke (“Duke”), when she was 25.

(I recall learning somewhere that Duke was inspired by the actor Russell Brand.)

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.

And Duke was everything you may expect from a famous actor: outwardly charming but a mess behind the scenes. He was a man of many demons, including alcohol.

At this theater company, Lara’s husband, Joe Nelson (also known as Nelson), was the play’s director during that fateful summer. He is a stable force who is basically the opposite of Duke. Lara’s and Joe’s cherry farm was his family’s.

Frequently Asked Questions

Warning: There are spoilers in this section.

Who are the main characters in Tom Lake?

In Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, the main characters include two Northern Michigan cherry farmers (Lara and Joe Nelson), their three adult daughters (Emily, Maisie, and Nell), and the famous actor Lara dated for one summer in her youth (Peter Duke).

Who is Joe Nelson in Tom Lake?

Lara’s husband in Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is Joe Nelson. They met decades earlier during a Summer production of Our Town, and he currently runs a Michigan cherry farm.

Who is Duke in Tom Lake?

In Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, Duke is Peter Duke, the famous actor who the protagonist, Lara Nelson, a middle-aged mother, dated for one summer in her youth.

What is the summary of Tom Lake?

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is about three adult sisters who seek entertainment by asking their mother to tell the story of the summer she dated a now-famous Hollywood actor. It becomes a story of choices, the pursuit of happiness, and the things people don’t know about their parents.

Who is Emily’s father in Tom Lake?

In Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, Emily’s father is Joe Nelson, Lara’s husband. Lara aborted the baby that Duke fathered.

How did Duke die in Tom Lake?

In Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, Duke died by drowning. It is unclear whether it was accidental or intentional.

Conclusion

This Tom Lake summary dove into the lives of multi-dimensional characters created by Ann Patchett to enhance your understanding and appreciation of this remarkable story. One of the best books for mothers, this novel showcases Patchett’s mastery in portraying the nuances of the human experience.

For more about Tom Lake, check out these posts next:

Save This Post Form

Save This Post!

Email yourself a link to this post so you can come back to it later.

By saving, you agree to receive email updates. Unsubscribe at any time.

Leave a Comment or Question

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *