Set In 2020 at the Nelson family’s orchard in Michigan, Joe and Lara have all three of their daughters back home for the lock down. Emily, the oldest wants to continue farming and will inherit the family farm. Maisie is a veterinarian, while Nell, the youngest, wants to become an actress. With other seasonal workers unable to help, they must all help pick cherries. When famous actor Peter Duke dies, Lara’s daughters beg her to tell the story of her romance with Duke when she was young and they were both actors at Tom Lake’s summer theater. While picking cherries, Lara tells the story of her short lived acting career.
The exquisitely written narrative gracefully moves between Lara’s recollection of her past and the present never-ending work in the orchard set before the family. It is a gentle reminder that parents had lives before they became parents and that everyone has a story and lessons learned. The finesse utilized between retelling parts of her past story with the heavy lessons Lara learned all embedded within the present daily grind of never-ending cherry picking is masterful.
Both narrative threads, the past and the present, are equally interesting and compelling. Since Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town is a major part of the plot, some knowledge of the play and characters would be very beneficial. This shouldn’t be an issue for most readers.
Even though this is set during the pandemic, I appreciated the way this was handled more than I have with any other lock down novel. Lives and plans were disrupted, but work continued for many. Other lock down novels have not even remotely captured the experience of working even harder every day because it had to be done. There is a brief passage where Emily says she doesn’t want children due to climate change, which danced too close to my lose rule to leave current events out of novels rule. But once it was added I do wish Patchett had continued the then-and-now theme and mentioned that in the late 70’s the change being touted was a new ice age.
Tom Lake is an ode to life being made around choices and events that all lead to where you are today. The true gift of the story is Patchett’s skillful handling of the dual narrative and her intelligent, beautifully written story of Lara’s life. Tom Lake is one of the best literary books of 2023. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins via Edelweiss.