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Tom Lake by Ann Patchett Book Review.

By: Jen Shoop

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I’m suffering from acute book hangover at the moment, as I finished Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake last week and haven’t known what to do with myself since.

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…

  1. Whether you preferred this book to Patchett’s other works?
  2. 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…!)
  3. 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?
  4. In a movie adaptation, who would play Peter Duke? What about Joe? And a young Lara? I love dream-casting!

Post-Scripts.

+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.

Shopping Break.

+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.

+I saw these Gap jeans on a fellow petite creative, Chrissy Ward, and immediately added to cart. She ordered in the petite inseam and so did I!

+Want all of these beautiful, well-designed scrub brushes for my sink, but especially this palm one and this bottle one. (I actually just ordered one for Mr. Magpie’s stocking.)

+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.

+Speaking of cropped blazers, this J. Crew one reminds me a lot of the Nili Lotan I shared yesterday.

+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!

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20 thoughts on “Tom Lake by Ann Patchett Book Review.

  1. Hi Jen! I bookmarked this post to come back to when I finished Tom Lake (after waiting weeks for my Libby hold!!) — excited to dig in. This was far and away my favorite Patchett, following a number a novels of hers that didn’t quite click for me. I think I was really drawn to Lara’s contentment in her marriage and motherhood (as another commenter alluded to), as opposed to the mothers in Commonwealth and The Dutch House. Patchett’s portrayal of Lara’s happiness with Joe and her daughters is also satisfyingly simple — it is quiet, rather than loud. I also appreciated the frame story of the pandemic, which is subtle but also deeply felt. Patchett doesn’t comment directly or broadly on much about the pandemic, but focuses instead on Lara’s joy that her daughters are home with her. Small moments, like the description of Maisie assisting the neighbor’s pregnant dog with a “no contact” vibe of towels and supplies left behind on a separate floor of the house, do consistently characterize the setting as a specific moment in time.

    Regarding names, I thought it was interesting that the girls are named after the character Emily, then Maisie (Joe’s aunt) and then Nell (Lara’s grandmother). Emily makes sense as a first choice, I suppose, but why Maisie and then Nell? Is there some sort of hierarchy there? I also couldn’t help but think, so the youngest daughter is Nell Nelson?? 😉

    I suppose it isn’t surprising that Peter Duke would be my least favorite, but it was hard for me to keep reading and his character becomes worse and WORSE. Oof. I certainly couldn’t have taken more of him. As far as actors, I would say Jude Law 20 years ago? Someone almost sickeningly handsome??

    1. Great dreamcast with Law! Yes, you’ve nailed it! Rakish, self-involved, “sickeningly handsome”!

      I agreed with everything you said and also was deeply drawn to the exact theme/portraiture you highlight: “Patchett’s portrayal of Lara’s happiness with Joe and her daughters is also satisfyingly simple — it is quiet, rather than loud.” I love the concept of a novel that acknowledges that the wild passion of youth is not better than / more interesting than a long, stable marriage.

      xx

  2. I loved your thoughts on this book! You articulated its beauty so well. “Her prose is elegant but not overwrought.” — exactly!!

    I thought you’d appreciate that right when I begun this book, my sons spent about 90 seconds knocking ALL the books off our large bookshelf, which led me to find my husband’s copy of Our Town from high school! I read it immediately and do think it was additive. Highly recommend.

    I really did enjoy Tom Lake — I found it beautifully immersive. But as far as Patchett novels go, I did not find it particularly ambitious thematically. She did say in the back that her “goal” for the novel, if she had one, was to get people to read Our Town, in which case, mission accomplished.

    My fave Patchett books are Commonwealth, Bel Canto and State of Wonder and those three feel more meaty to me. Perhaps they grapple with deeper themes? More complexities?

    You’re making me wonder if a more robust Peter Duke could have given the novel a bit more weight that I found myself craving.

    In any case, I enjoyed it and immediately lent it to a friend! And I enjoyed reading your review, Jen. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Joyce! I agree with you on the “ambitiousness” comment – but, perhaps, that was part of her intent. Lara seems happy with the quiet domesticity she chose; perhaps Patchett is doing the same thing? Maybe things can be small and still enjoyable? I think she delivered, if that was partly the point. I read a review of the book (after finishing it) that suggested that this book sort of demands you sit in a slow hammock, slow down, and just let a slower life take over for you. That’s how the entire book experience felt to me, too!

      I feel nervous to say this, but I did not like Bel Canto! I love everything else she’s written but it was just not my cup of tea. I couldn’t get comfortable in it? I ended up putting it down after making painstaking progress over months. Yikes!!! Maybe I need to revisit…

      xx

      1. That’s a good point. There is an intentionality to the “un-ambitiousness” of the book. It did seem to force you to slow down. In that way, I see it as a perfect summer read. And, of course, it’s set in the summer. I always feel like I’m in good hands when I read Patchett. Like, this writer knows what she’s doing.

        You know what, Bel Canto was my first-ever Patchett read. So there could be something to “discovering” her writing that way that draws me to the book and makes me remember it fondly. Perhaps I should re-read and see if it holds up in my top 3. I appreciate the tension of it, but could also see how it’s not for everyone! xo.

        1. I totally agree with your comment “I always feel like I’m in good hands when I read Patchett. Like, this writer knows what she’s doing.” YES! She is masterful. Everything hands together / ripples beautifully, but she still leaves enough unresolved to make it feel artful and not forced. So incredible.

          xx

  3. I just finished Tom Lake over the weekend and am similarly having a book hangover. I read a physical book because I happened upon it at my library in their “Lucky Day” section; the holds list for the Kindle version was months long. I savored it and drew it out over several days because I didn’t want to finish reading it!

    I deeply resonated with Lara; my husband often describes me as “easily contented” and I related to her ability to look back at her past and decisions–especially the decision to pursue stability–with fondness but without oversized regret for what might have been.

    I also loved The Dutch House, but I think I preferred Tom Lake to Commonwealth. Character-driven, family-centered literary fiction is my favorite type of book to read and I just feel like Ann Patchett always, always nails it!

    1. Hi Erin – What a lovely compliment from your husband, and I totally agree with you on how beautifully Patchett wrote her Lara character. I’ve talked with friends about this at some length: how much I love the way Patchett caresses and cares for her characters. Like, I feel that she lets them grow organically, richly, without pruning or fine-tuning them too much. I love that aspect of her character design. She’s so good at it. They feel deeply real to me.

      xx

  4. I haven’t read Tom Lake, but your review makes me want to! I’m especially intrigued by the relationship with the main character and her grandmother because I had such a close relationship with my grandma, who also taught me how to sew 🙂

    Have you read The Patron Saint of Liars, also by Patchett? I read it a couple years ago – it’s the only Patchett book I’ve read – and agree with what you say about her writing and how it’s plain but still elegant.

    1. Hi Sarah! I’ve not read “Patron Saint” — I need to get working on her backlist, because I’ve also not read “State of Wonder.” These are BIG resume gaps for a Patchett lover like myself. I think I’ll read one of those two next. Thanks for the nudge!

      xx

  5. I’m also in a bit of a book hangover after reading Tom Lake! I’m a huge Patchett fan, and while I don’t think Tom Lake has topped Bel Canto for me, I preferred it over The Dutch House and Commonwealth (still working on reading through the rest of her “back catalog”). I read a physical copy, but I’m sure Meryl’s narration was excellent (just still haven’t really gotten into audiobooks over here).

    Her prose is just so wonderful; there were several times I typed up quotes or took pictures to send to friends because a line would just stop me in my tracks. Like this one: “Duke took my hand and started swinging it so as not to appear tender. I could feel the current of his life flow into my fingers and up my arm and travel into the muscles of my heart.” So beautiful and evocative!

    I was also impressed by Patchett’s ability to keep a story about a couple that leaves behind their big family dreams to move back to the family farm out of saccharine or cliché territory. It’s clear that Lara and Joe’s choice was right for them, but Patchett avoids ever presenting it as somehow superior in a universal way.

    So much good food for thought — I’m hoping to read this with my in person book club in 2024!

    1. I highly recommend “State of Wonder” — to me, it’s the Patchett most closely linked to Bel Canto, which is so beautiful. I agree that she does a great job of not being didactic about this choice; they didn’t make the Right Choice for everyone- just the right choice for them! Thanks for pointing that out. 🙂

      1. Thanks for the upvote on “State of Wonder” — haven’t read that one yet! Going to give a try myself. And agree that Megan’s insight on choice in the novel is well-put!

        xx

    2. Yes! To all of this! I also was stopped in my tracks by multiple phrases. I loved the line where she said (probably not getting this exactly right): “Bad affairs are always more interesting than good marriages.” I thought that was so insightful and…coy? of her as a writer, because here she is, talking about a saucy affair with a movie star, and YET. The through-line is that Lara’s long-term, loving relationship with her sturdy husband brings her the deepest fulfillment of her life.

      I also share your marveling at Patchett’s ability to keep the story “out of saccharine or cliche territory.” Yes! There was so much about the cherry farm that felt almost too idyllic and yet it never landed that way.

      xx

      Jen

  6. I could read you writing about books till kingdom come! What a beautiful examination of Patchett’s work. I don’t find her writing to be as compelling, personally, but your review makes me want to love it.

  7. I enjoyed that Lara did not, much to her children’s dismay, live in a state of regret. She was delighted and content with her “simple” life and did not long for an alternative path. I appreciate that she responds with a strong sense of contentment. She doesn’t second guess herself, as so often happens in the female narrative. Her and Joe’s love seems so stable. He doesn’t seem jealous or in competition with Peter Duke. That story line would have been reductive.

    In discussing the “who to we belong to” question, I think her abortion at the end lays that question to rest. Lara firmly belonged to herself.

    I listened to this after kicking myself for not listening to Tom Hanks narrate Dutch House. What a joy.

    1. Yes to this! I completely agree with your insight about Lara not living in a state of regret. I love that Patchett writes her this way — so unexpected in some ways. It felt like she was writing against type in some ways, or against the grain, or against culture? Anyhow, loved it.

      xx

  8. Bookmarking this to read after I’ve finished the book! I picked up a hard copy but I’ve been saving it to read for when I have a long stretch of time (perhaps slightly over optimistic). I always so enjoy your book reviews, it’s so nice to read what someone else saw in the same text!

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