When Ann Patchett was still a child, she took two decisions: She wanted to be a writer, and she didn’t want any children. She never really changed her mind. The few times she came close to reviewing the second, arguably more controversial, decision—she confesses this in her essay, There Are No Children Here (2021)—she found herself at a farmhouse in the Berkshires.
As a young writer, Patchett was sometimes invited for the weekend by her editor at Houghton Mifflin, Dick Todd, and his wife, Susan. It was the early 1990s and the Todds lived in an old house that stood in the middle of a field and was impossible to warm, a place where their girls, Emily, Maisie and Nell, their dog Coco, and their many guests, had all left their imprint. “It was,” Patchett writes, “the love, the house, the field, the dog, the dishwasher, the long wooden table in the kitchen, the bowl of apples, the piles and piles of books, the three girls mostly grown and gone, that made me think having children could be okay, as long as they were like the Todd children, by which I mean not around…”
Three decades later, this farmhouse (or something quite like it) has a starring role in Tom Lake, Patchett’s latest novel, with the dog and the kitchen and the bedroom with the sloping roof stickered with glow-in-the-dark planets and stars, and, most vitally, featuring three girls, whose names Patchett retains: Emily, Maisie and Nell.
For all the charm and circularity of this anecdote though, it would be idle to say that Patchett has turned a memory from her youth into a novel, peopled by her Charles Lamb-inspired “dream children”. Anyone familiar with Patchett’s oeuvre knows that each of her books features a unique world, constructed so cleverly that one feels as though it came into being fully formed.
Her breakout novels demonstrate this talent: Whether it’s the intricacies of opera in Bel Canto (2001) or malaria research in State Of Wonder (2011), her authorial intuition fuses almost magically with in-depth research. In Tom Lake too, the research is woven in so finely we don’t even notice it. And given its story-within-a-story form, there are, in fact, two distinct worlds unfolding here: the cherry farm in the present and summer stock theatre in the past.
The framing story gives us Lara (once Laura) and Joe, cherry farmers in north Michigan, whose vast orchards—mostly cherries but also apples and pears and plums—are difficult to maintain at the best of times. It is the early days of the pandemic, the hired crew has dwindled sharply, worries have multiplied. The only upside is that the “mostly grown and gone” girls are now at home, pitching in with the cherry-picking. They ask Lara to tell them the story of her summer romance with Peter Duke, who would become a world-renowned actor. And it is here, in this land of memory, that the real action of the novel is contained.
Long before the girls were born, Lara had been discovered by a Hollywood hotshot while acting in a college adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s cult American play, Our Town (Tom Lake, a tribute to this American classic, sent me looking for the text). So brilliantly did she play Wilder’s Emily that she was invited to audition for a film in Los Angeles. She stayed on for a few years, acting in a few commercials and a sitcom or two, waiting for her film to release. Eventually, she found herself acting as Emily again, in a famous summer stock theatre company, in the bewitchingly beautiful small town of Tom Lake in Michigan. This was where she met Peter Duke.
I first encountered the intriguing concept of summer stock in Richard Yates’ novel Young Hearts Crying (1984). The idea of a residential cast that spends an entire summer—May-August in the US—living and rehearsing in a performance space that is part-collegial and part-cut-throat, to perform to out-of-town visitors who come in droves once the play opens, is fertile ground for a novel. Lara meets Duke on her first day at Tom Lake and they are inseparable till the curtain comes down and the summer romance ends.
We readers know Lara is giving the girls the edited version. Early on, we hear her saying, “We’re switching to montage now … I won’t put you through any more of high school.” Here is an author so consummate at crafting that the joints are well and truly hidden—Patchett is at her cleverest, reminding us of the slippery nature of memory, and the wider and narrower beams used to recount family stories.
In fact, memory plays a vital role in all three of Patchett’s recent novels. In Commonwealth (2016), her most autobiographical work, she departs, for the first time, from the more straightforward narrative that had dominated her earlier career, to one that goes back and forth over 60 years. The Dutch House (2019) too plays with a narrative that zooms in and out, across time. Tom Lake accomplishes this with great ease, almost with the smoothness of an OTT family saga, with the past shot in a vintage palette.
As a foil to Peter and Lara’s romance, we see Sebastian, Peter’s tennis-player brother, and Pallas, the only black performer in the cast and the understudy to Lara’s Emily (race-neutral casting that in the 1980s was based on the assumption that the understudy would never have to actually go on stage).There is a heady combination here of theatre and youth (and stitching!), reminiscent of Elizabeth Gilbert’s City Of Girls (2019)—Gilbert’s eight-year-old book, Big Magic, has an interesting story about the unique literary connection between her and Patchett.
Without any spoilers, I will offer a final comment on this readable novel: What makes the final concoction so delicious is that the spice of the summer romance is balanced perfectly by the sweetness of married love, that most unstated of this novel’s themes, the savoury pleasures of contemplating one’s past with quiet wisdom, and, finally, the tart sharpness that arrives from Patchett’s portrayal of the mother-daughter dynamic. But the zing in the pie comes from that one final revelation Lara chooses to not give away.
Devapriya Roy is the author of five books, including Friends From College. Her sixth is an anthology she has edited, titled Cat People.