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Let me first state that I am heavily predisposed to enjoy Patchett’s work, no matter the subject, because I love her way with words. Her prose is elegant but never overwrought. She puts things plainly, but in language illuminated by imagination, or abstraction, or reference. You know that phrase about people gifted with vocal talents — “she could sing the phone book”? It’s like that, applied to the written word: Patchett could make a phone book read interestingly, as though gilded by gold. And so, on style criteria alone, Tom Lake won my heart.
Thematically, I was drawn in by the novel’s gentle interrogations of selfhood. Who do we belong to? What belongs to us? What do we owe the people we love? These questions are particularly interesting within the contexts of the novel’s treatment of celebrity, land ownership, familial lore, marriage, and inter-generational relationships. As in: what are the things we actually own? Do we communicate those to others, keep them to ourselves, preserve them for reasons good and bad? I am thinking specifically of Lara’s relationship with her grandmother, and the way she never quite “belonged” to her own immediate family, but did feel at home with her grandmother, who taught her how to sew — an inherited skill she would rely on intermittently over the course of her life. When her career in acting proves short-lived, and even when an injury temporarily foists her out of a stage role, she turns to this handicraft as a trade, and returns to live with her grandmother. Celebrity and various professional roles may come and go, may not belong to Lara for the longterm, but pastimes and virtues born of family commitment will. There are similar mechanics at play in the role of the cherry farm, which Lara’s husband, Joe, seems determined to “keep in the family.” Joe briefly explores other career options before hunkering down to a lived-in, inherited lifestyle of rhythmic, seasonal labor–as does his daughter, Emily. Emily, though, shares that she does not plan to have children, an admission that complicates the matters of “belonging” and “inheritance” in meaningful ways. Does she “owe” her family progeny to carry on the farm? What does it mean to prioritize her politics over the family land? There is also the prominent inclusion of the play “Our Town” in the story, about which Ann Patchett has spoken at length and in adoration elsewhere. As far as I understand it, “Our Town” is a story of community, of the way people belong to one another. Lara performs this play multiple times in her life, each time feeling intensely connected to not only the main character (Emily) but the production’s cast and crew. She is close to none of those co-stars by the novel’s end, but she does pass along the name Emily to her firstborn. Interestingly, she names another daughter after her beloved seamstress grandmother, Nell. Patchett invites us to ask: what does it mean to bestow a name on someone, to “pass along” a history, whether fictional or not? What does it mean that we may drift away from certain people and experiences in our lives, and yet gravitate strongly towards others, as Lara does with her co-star and former lover Peter Duke? How much of who we are is shaped by the experiences of our caregivers? And how much belongs to us alone?
Patchett caresses these themes throughout Tom Lake, coaxing them out of every plot point and character. With her usual grace, she does not grind her message down to a fine point, but instead suggests that, mainly, we belong to ourselves. This is not delivered in a bleak, Hobbesian way, with the characters out, vying only for themselves, but rather in the sense that each of us possesses a deep font of memories, secrets, lost or obscured histories, truths that we alone can elect to share or not share with the people we love. We can love deeply, and still we can own ourselves and our own private choices. She underlines this point when she has Lara omit certain parts of her love affair with Peter Duke.
What did you think? If you read it, I’m dying to know…
- Whether you preferred this book to Patchett’s other works?
- Whether you read the book or listened on audiobook? (I toggled between my Kindle and audiobook — the latter is delightfully narrated by Meryl Streep, who adds so much to the book…!)
- What you made of Peter Duke? He seems, ultimately, a strategically thin foil. He is preoccupied with himself, he is impulsive, he is mentally unwell, he is wildly famous, he dies a dramatic death — traits that enable us to view Lara and Joe in higher relief. I wish I’d had more Peter Duke though?
- In a movie adaptation, who would play Peter Duke? What about Joe? And a young Lara? I love dream-casting!
+I also absolutely adored Patchett’s Dutch House.
+The best book I’ve read so far this year.
+My favorite audiobooks.
+How to get started with writing.
+I mentioned a sweater from the brand Quince a few days ago and got SO many DMs and a couple comments on how great Quince is?! Where have I been living?! I am going to try their cashmere fisherman sweater, which looks a lot like Jenni Kayne but is only $89. I sized up from my true size (XS) to a Small in this, per user photos / comments. One Magpie said she loves this particular style but warned that it does pill — and to have a sweater shaver on hand. No problemo!
+LOVE this $35 burl wood tray. Adds so much warmth and contrast to a coffee table!
+This is sort of a fashion outlier for me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this cropped oxford, so I ordered to try.
+Love a henley tee.
+WOW this Rhode dress. So me. Love for a fall wedding, with a velvet heel?
+A fall candle inspired by my favorite place on earth?! (“Vintage cedarwood, smoke, snow-capped pine, tooled leather, golden embers.” Yes pls.)
+Drooling over these satin trousers.
+Veronica Beard can take all my money. Now eyeing this boucle blazer. WOW.
+These green glasses are two for under $20 and SO chic.
+This hand cream is so beautifully packaged. What a beautiful little gift!
+Gorgeous woven basket for blankets, games, books, magazines, etc.
+I’ve had my wedding gown taking up major hanging closet space forever but just discovered this clever storage box. Think I might migrate the gown into it so I can put it up and away more easily!
+Inexpensive, reflective dog lead for those of us who walk their dogs at night!
+This heathered hoodie looks divine. Like the length!