Are you in possession of a hammock? A creaky old porch swing? A bay window with built-in seating? If not, Ann Patchett’s new novel, “Tom Lake,” will situate you there mentally. I wouldn’t be surprised if it put your fitness tracker on the fritz, even if you amble around listening to Meryl Streep read the audio version.
This author is such a decorated and beloved figure in American letters — spinning out novels, memoirs and essays like so many multicolored silks; opening an independent bookstore in Nashville to fight the Amazon anaconda; even helping care for Tom Hanks’s cancer-stricken personal assistant — that I sometimes think of her as Aunt Patchett.
Patchett’s actual family of origin was complicated, as she made explicit after the 2016 publication of the semi-autobiographical “Commonwealth.” “The Dutch House” (2019), which had a wicked stepmother, did not stray far from the idea that living with relatives can be messy and hellish.
With “Tom Lake,” she treats us — and perhaps herself — to a vision of a family beautifully, bucolically simple: nuclear, in its pre-bomb meaning.
Like some guardian angel in the sky, Anton Chekhov hovers over this story, which features three sisters in their 20s and is set on their parents’ cherry orchard (albeit in northern Michigan during the recent pandemic, not the tuberculosis-torn Russian provinces). But Thornton Wilder is driving the tractor.
Sequestered not unhappily in lockdown, the sisters’ mother, Lara (she dropped a “u” after reading “Doctor Zhivago”), is telling them, after tiring days in the field, about her long-ago, short-lived career as an actress, whose highlight was starring as Emily Gibbs, the tragic heroine of Wilder’s enduringly popular piece of Americana, “Our Town.”
In flashbacks we learn she played Emily in both high school and college in New Hampshire, also home to the play’s fictional Grover’s Corners. Then, after a brief and disorienting detour to Hollywood, she returns to the role in summer stock at a theater company, the titular Tom Lake, that happened to be nearish the orchard.
“Even hawking Diet Dr Pepper I was Emily, because she was the only thing I knew how to do,” Lara realized after starting rehearsals to play Mae in Sam Shepard’s rather less innocent “Fool for Love.” “I had the range of a box turtle. I was excellent, as long as no one moved me.” Emily is as important to her as Barbie, apparently, was to so many others: a character so formative, she provides the name for Lara’s firstborn.
Lara’s Emily doesn’t aspire to be an actress — that particular affliction has befallen the youngest daughter, Nell, named for Lara’s seamstress grandmother — but she is powerfully fixated on her mother’s former co-star and ex-boyfriend: one Peter Duke, who played Emily Webb’s father at Tom Lake.
“Duke,” as everyone calls him, goes on to become a huge celebrity, enchanting the kiddies in a movie musical called “The Popcorn King,” singing and dancing on a floor covered with kernels, then becoming a Serious Actor, winning an Oscar and inevitably descending into addiction. As a teen, Lara’s Emily grows convinced he, not Lara’s hardworking fruit-farmer husband, was her father, and Patchett drops in enough subtle commonalities — their hair, a certain physical rubberiness (“whoever installed her interior compass put the magnet in upside down”) — that the reader is left in genuine suspense about whether it’s true.
But the larger theme is that it may not matter: Our children inherit the full range of our experience, as much as genetic traits.
“Tom Lake” isn’t a prudish novel — the flashbacks are to the 1980s, when parents hovered a lot less — but it is a resolutely folksy, cozy one, a thing of pies and quilts and nettlesome goats and a middle child named Maisie after a great-aunt. (Lara, in her late 50s up there in rural Michigan, is a demographic anomaly, leaving so many of her old friends in the deep fog of memory without trying to hunt them down on Facebook.) Nell senior had a sewing business and countrified sayings appear here like dropped stitches. You could have knocked me over with a feather!Idle hands? We all know whose workshop they are. You “can’t swing a cat” without hitting a castle, in Scotland.Two performances of Wilder’s Stage Manager are “as different as chalk and cheese.”
But Patchett is also, as always, slyly needlepointing her own pillowcase mottos. “There is no explaining this simple truth about life: You will forget much of it.” “Sweet cherries must be picked today and every day until they’re gone.” “Swimming is the reset button.” This last spoken by a lithe and beautiful Black character named Pallace — whose integration into the theatrical utopia seems just a tad too easy.
“Tom Lake” is a quiet and reassuring book, not a rabble-rouser. It’s highly conscious of Emily Gibbs’s speech about human failure to appreciate the little things, the Stage Manager’s line about the earth “straining away all the time to make something of itself,” and of the ravages to that earth. Domestic contentment is its North Star, generational continuity its reliable moon. Only a cynic could resist lying down on a nice soft blanket to marvel at Patchett’s twinkling planetarium.
TOM LAKE | By Ann Patchett | 320 pp. | HarperCollins | $30