Friday, August 4, 2023

Ann Patchett's Latest Novel: Tom Lake


I am predicting an uptick in readers of Thornton Wilder's Our Town now that Ann Patchett's new novel is out. The play is central to the novel's plot, first as Laura (who becomes Lara) decides at the last minute to try out of the role of Emily in a local production of the play after seeing the abysmal auditions of the other potential Emilys and then as she goes on to play the role in summer stock theatre in Michigan. 

Now in her late fifties, Lara is telling her three daughters, in episodes, about that experience at Tom Lake near the cherry orchards of Michigan. The three grown daughters are waiting out the pandemic at their parents' home, something Lara admits to herself she enjoys. Central to the narrative is one of her co-stars, Peter Duke, with whom she had a summer fling. Duke has gone on to achieve movie star status, leading to curiosity of her girls, particularly Emily, the oldest, who at one point believed he might have been her father.

The full role of the girls' actual father Joe, who has inherited the Nelson orchards, becomes more apparent as the story unfolds. As one would expect in a story woven around a play, Patchett has assembled a curious cast of characters--Lara's understudy Pallace, a Black dancer to whom Duke's brother "Saint Sebastian" is drawn; Uncle Wallace, a former TV star now playing the Stage Manager; Mr. Ripley, who chanced to discover Lara while watching his niece in the play and brought her to Hollywood for a movie role.

The three daughters are also distinctly rendered--Emily has been preparing her whole life to take over the family farm along with Benny, literally the boy next door. Maisie has not completed veterinary school, but the neighbors call on her for all their animal emergencies from birth to death. Nell, the youngest, wants to be an actor.

The impact of story--those we want to hear, those we are expected to tell--is an important part of the novel, including the impact of different perspectives on the interpretation of an event--or of a play. Lara says, "I learned so many things that summer at Tom Lake, and most of those lessons I would have gladly done without." 

Perhaps the most universal lesson, both for the novel and for the play it is wrapped around, is the one Patchett noted at her book launch: Life is so brief, just a piling up a little moments. Before you know it, you're in Act 3.


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