" Tom Lake" by Ann Patchett.
Chris Hewitt, Tribune News Service
Reading "Tom Lake," I kept thinking about a lie we readers tell ourselves: "I never wanted it to end."
I loved Ann Patchett's novel, in which a Michigan cherry farmer tells her daughters about her long-ago fling with a now-famous actor (think George Clooney). In fact, I had that "never wanted it to end" thought. But of course I wanted it to end.
I needed to find out what happened, for one thing (there are at least two juicy surprises). And, I mean, there are other books to read. I enjoyed every minute of "Tom Lake" but there's a new one from Zadie Smith, too, and Walter Mosley. And the third season of "Only Murders in the Building" isn't going to watch itself.
I'm happy to report that "Tom Lake" does end, in a close-the-book-with-a-satisfying-sigh way. The events unfold on a Michigan farm, where Lara's three grown daughters have come, in 2020, to help out and escape COVID-19 (the virus is never named in "Tom Lake" but the characters realize how fortunate they are to avoid its suffering).
As they go about the work, Lara enchants her kids — and us — with the story of her brief acting career, launched when a talent scout saw her in a high school production of "Our Town." That led to a movie and a summer production of Thornton Wilder's classic, in which she again played the lead role of Emily in a cast that included the future Oscar winner, whose name is Peter Duke and who, for a time, one of Lara's daughters believed/hoped was her father.
Patchett, who also wrote "Bel Canto" and "The Dutch House," glides so effortlessly between time frames that we're barely aware "Tom Lake" tells two very different stories. One is a coming-of-age tale, in which Lara learns about love and herself.
The other, in 2020, is about parents and adult children. Lara and her daughters have an easy, jokey relationship with each other but they also keep secrets and they view the world differently, not just because of the pandemic but also because the climate crisis is changing how their farm works.
Patchett already has proved herself a gifted novelist and essayist, and her insight into the acting process hints she could also be a good actor. At the high school "Our Town" auditions, first-time actor Lara sums it all up deftly: "The Stage Managers had embarrassed me, and the Georges, at least after the first one, bored me, but the Emilys irritated me deeply. They were playing the smartest student in her high school class as if she were a half-wit."
"Tom Lake" is a warm, funny book about kind people who do the best they can. It's a joy to spend a few hours with these people, which is where that never-wanted-it-to-end trope comes into play. And, if I'm being honest, as I closed "Tom Lake," I was thinking about books like "Etta and Otto and Russell and James" and "The Warmth of Other Suns" and "A Prayer for Owen Meany" — cherished books that I read long ago but that are still with me and that, thus, have never ended.
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