Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake: A Meditation on Life?

Let’s just start by saying that we won’t ever not read an Ann Patchett book and review it. But there likely won’t be another time when one of us has just met her (for a second time) and had an amazing encounter before reading and reviewing her newest book! It goes a little something like this:

Lara: We are both in an online book group that, this year, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Conveniently, Ms. Patchett’s latest endeavor, Tom Lake, was scheduled to be released this year and eight of us, including me, trekked from all over the country (OR, CA, AZ, CO, TX, NY, and AL) to converge on Parnassus Books in Nashville and then to Harpeth Hall to hear her read from Tom Lake, talk about the efforts we all need to make to quash book-banning and literary censorship, and then meet her and get personalized copies of our books. 

When it was finally my turn, I introduced myself and mentioned that I had the pleasure of meeting her many years ago during her paperback tour of State of Wonder in Phoenix at Changing Hands Bookstore. It should be noted here that the lead of Tom Lake is named Lara. I then shared with her my far-fetched idea that, after our initial meeting, I was convinced she jotted my unique name in a notebook and committed to naming one of her future characters LARA. She smiled, completely going along with it. And then, in her kind and quick-witted, whip-smart way, she inscribed my book perfectly:

To Lara, It was you. It was always you. Ann Patchett.


So, I am not going to say this means I will love everything she continues to write… but….

Speaking of her writing, what did you think?

Jennifer: Well, first, give us the run-down. What’s this book about?

Lara: In a nutshell, Lara Nelson is married to Joe Nelson; they are cherry farmers, and are parents to adult children, Emily, Maisie, and Nell. Covid is happening, and they’re staying put in the cherry orchard, working. 

Lara and Joe met in Summer Stock Theatre as young adults at the time when she was romantically involved with Peter Duke, an actor who would go on to amass pretty significant fame. Summer Stock, a bit of partying, and youthful romance between the leads! 

However, she ends up with Joe. In the future, middle-aged mom reflects back, with her daughters as the interested audience. Lara’s daughters are grilling her for the details of what they believe was a torrid affair and their chance at living a more glamorous life than that of cherry farmers. 

Jennifer: To add to your good summary, we might note that Peter Duke had that popular guy star-quality, and the play they were working together on was Our Town by ​​Thornton Wilder.

Lara: Good call out. I would even say that Tom Lake will be a richer reading experience if you start with a quick read of Our Town. It’s a great allegorical play about life, death, and love in a small town. 

Jennifer: You’re right, and I’m relying on, um, college memories.

I guess I’m hesitant to trample too strongly on the “pedestal” that has been established in our book group! You know, I think Ann Patchett is a great writer. Reliably worth the read. I didn’t love this! I think I enjoy her nonfiction a bit better! But I did love State of Wonder. Before I go nuts, let me ask you what you thought?

Lara: I remember you texting me a few weeks ago, so that I would hear it from you first, that you didn’t love it. And, you know what? That’s okay. We all want everyone to love what we love, as much as we love it. If I am being honest, I didn’t love Commonwealth (now before everyone gasps and throws oranges at me…), but I am committed to going back at some point and giving it another try. On paper, I should love it. And, it’s Ann. But I get it. Not every book works for every person. Even books we typically love by authors we adore. 

All that said, I really enjoyed it, and not just because her name was Lara and Meryl Streep expertly read the audio version to me. I was listening to a podcaster review the book and she didn’t love it as much as she had hoped. She loves literary fiction, but expressed that she likes more conflict in her books. This was too reflective or meditative for her. That’s fair. I really liked that about it. I adored the relationship Lara had with Joe and with each of her daughters. I liked that Peter (referred to as Duke) was the quintessential hottie douchebag and that his brother Sebastian was a saint. 

The writing was just so good, as to be expected. I mean, read this:

“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, until one morning you’re picking cherries with your three grown daughters and your husband goes by on the Gator and you are positive that this is all you’ve ever wanted in the world.”

Jennifer: So, yeah, didn’t love it . . . ! But that is a great and true passage.

Well, let’s praise her literary citizenship. I wanted to join you at Parnassus, her Nashville bookstore (and I’d also like to go to Louise Erdrich’s Minneapolis bookstore, Birchbark Books). 

I guess my biggest criticism is that I wasn’t into her narration technique, or the way she was “telling” a story to her kids. It felt distant. I felt the distance between the here and now, and the past with theater and Peter. It never achieved the intimacy of the present, I guess you might say.

But there were other things!

I really didn’t like the protagonist, so I was, like, Whatever. No spoiler, but I wasn’t thrilled with some of her youthful actions. I was disappointed in her towards the end, like profoundly disappointed. No spoilers.

Also, every book description refers to its thoughtfulness about “married love” (non-spoiler: she doesn’t marry the hottie douchebag–she marries a cherry farmer, and this essentially means that there is no suspense in this book). I didn’t see this as any meditation on married love. I saw Joe walk into a few rooms in which his wife and daughters were talking, and he’d say a quick, dry line, and walk out. Married love? Really?

Do you think you can explain the significance of the play, which I can’t say I recall?

Lara: Before I answer your question… I think Tom Lake is being marketed as a reflection on married love. That’s not correct; and we know books are mis-marketed. I would say this is a reflection on life and the various types of relationships we can experience and the meaning we can make of those experiences.

Now to your question. Well, I think the big message of Our Town is appreciating all the moments we experience in life. It’s those moments that make up a life. It’s love, death, and relationships that affect us all. There’s also this theme of what stories we tell and what we keep to ourselves. We all edit our stories, depending on whom we are telling. I liked that we saw Lara as a daughter, friend, girlfriend, wife, and mother – and how she showed up in each of those capacities. What we share of ourselves and what we keep to ourselves was a powerful theme. 

Jennifer: I did like Sebastian. 

I like what you’re saying about secrets we tell and those we don’t, and how we edit our stories for others. I’m not sure that I’d say Patchett accomplished the goal of revealing these things.

Before we move on, I guess I would favorably point out that Patchett does capture some of the fleeting choices we make and feelings we have as young people – whether it be romantic interest or the way we handle/mishandle friendships (that’s in here) or career aspirations. I think Patchett captures that. I mean, I think (I know, frankly) that I wanted to be an international diplomat, hopping from US embassy to US embassy abroad, and I remember a Peter Duke or two. I was no actress, though. And writing stuck. But I get it . . . 

Lara: And, while it may not have worked for you, I thought she really did a good job with depicting a real relationship between a mother and her three adult daughters (and how the sisters, themselves, interacted). I loved the dialogue, the squabbles, the fears, the secrets, and the admissions. It all worked for me.

So, I guess we say read it and tell us where you land on it.

Jennifer: What else have you been reading, since we discussed Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead?

Lara: Not as much as I would have liked. I seem to have slowed in the summer heat… I read my first Isabel Allende, The Wind Knows My Name. It’s her latest. I liked it, but didn’t adore it. I am willing to give her another try. I also ear-read Steven Rowley’s newest, The Celebrants, and enjoyed it. And, I just finished a book totally outside of my comfort zone, Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch. Lot’s of suspending my disbelief, which you know, is hard for me. What about you?

Jennifer: I feel as if I’m reading a lot this year! I think James McBride’s new book, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, is absolutely stunning. Amazing and rich characterization, a kind-heartedness and redemption that I admire, and an understanding of cultural diversity make this book a winner. Another good, albeit weird, book is Harold by Steven Wright. It’s a great book. It feels a bit like work. For that, I’m iffy on giving it all the love. Basic premise: We follow the thoughts of a third grade boy in Massachusetts during his school day. The thing is this: he’s not really like other third graders. He’s “special.” His brain seems to do tricks, um, like Steven Wright’s comedy routines! I also read some Brad Listi and Louise Erdrich. Lorrie Moore’s newbie disappointed me.

Next time!

Get ready for stepping significantly out of one of our comfort zones when we review Shark Heart by Emily Habeck.