Tom Lake, Ann Patchett
I’m confident Ann Patchett won’t mind when I say that her new novel Tom Lake, modestly forecast by its own publisher Bloomsbury as ‘the publishing event of summer 2023’, will not knock anyone’s socks off. There are no grand gestures, big reveals, high concepts, challenging forms or ne’er before seen feats with language. Instead, Tom Lake gives us what we came for: classic Patchett. By which I mean a sweeping story, casually told, strung across the page as easily as coins shaken in a pocket, and as cheering and satisfying a read as anyone might hope for, ever.
As I started reading - already fully invested with the hype to the extent that I’d begged a copy from the publicist because it came out while I was on holiday - I determined that I would seek out Patchett’s secrets. I would find the evidence of her craft, wheedle out the workings between her runalong prose, her easy-like-a-Sunday-afternoon dialogue. I’d unpick the seams in her haute couture. No such luck. The thing with Ann Patchett, who is widely loved as a person as much as her writing is critically respected (and also sells like hot cakes) is that she makes gentle-seeming tales of all-America appear as casual anecdotes shared around a table, sweet but true, fair if tragic, plausible though world shaking.
And Tom Lake had me bawling my eyes out by the end. It is a truly contemporary family drama set in the Nelson family’s Michigan cherry orchard during a Covid-era harvest, when Lara and Joe’s three grown daughters return to work given the farm workers are much reduced in number. They persuade their mother to tell them the story of when she dated a famous film star, Peter Duke, one season they starred together in summer stock theatre at nearby Tom Lake.
The story keeps a close rein on all its characters, but Patchett permits readers plenty of flights of fancy. We have Hollywood, celebrity, Broadway, young love, destiny, addiction and trauma. There’s nostalgia for the pastoral idyll, acknowledgement of changed political times, of global warming, without swaying from the central theme of family and happiness, love and contentment, which Lara has in spades - but for her daughters and did the rest of us, it helps to pitch all this against fame and fortune - a truly Chekhovian tale for the 21st century.