Ann Patchett's touching book
If the truth be told, I have never been a huge Ann Patchett fan. I read State of Wonder years ago and listened to Tom Hanks' narration of The Dutch House when it was released. Both were good stories, but I didn't LOVE the books, and I didn't develop intense connections with the characters.
So I surprised myself when I purchased the Audible version of Patchett's latest release, Tom Lake based on all the hype it has gotten. I'll admit that my expectations were not too high based on my reactions to her previous books.
But, oh my goodness, I LOVED this book!
When personal experience meshes with the story
Maybe it's because my high school produced Our Town my junior year, and I played Emily Webb, just like Lara Nelson, the main character of Tom Lake.
Maybe it's because the entire framework for Tom Lake hangs on Our Town, Thorton Wilder's immortal classic about small-town life, a play with special meaning to me.
Maybe it's because I'm a Midwesterner who lives in a rural setting connected to the natural beauty of the earth and can relate to the narrator's love of the cherry farm she and her husband own.
Maybe it's because I, too, am from a family of three daughters, just like the family in Tom Lake.
Probably, the similarities I had to Lara Nelson, the narrator of Tom Lake, are so many that I was internally wired to like the book. I particularly related to her comments about motherhood. She made remarks about mothers and daughters that were so honest, so raw - and so much like the ones I thought to myself when I was raising my girls - that I laughed out loud. Literally. (My husband came into the kitchen to see who I was laughing with!)
Quite possibly, my intense connection to this book happened because of Meryl Streep's spot-on narration, so natural. So real.
I felt like I was there in the cherry orchard with her, listening to her tell her story.
No doubt, skilled narration makes a huge difference in the appeal of an audiobook, but there's something about Meryl Streep's inflection, tone, and pacing that is intimate and compelling, far superior to many other narrators I've heard.
The Plot of Tom Lake
Lara Nelson has been assigned the task of helping at auditions at her small-town New Hampshire High School auditions with her friend, Veronica. The play they're producing is especially revered in New Hampshire, the classic Our Town. Lara has no intention of trying out for a part until she sees how badly auditions are going. By watching others, she knows how to play it better.
She is a natural actress. She plays Emily first in the high school production and then wins the role again in college. A Hollywood scout sees Lara in her college production of Our Town and gives her a screen test. Her "naturalness" lands her a role in an upcoming film.
Unfortunately, the film is delayed for several years because of production issues, and Lara, as good as she is, does not have the name to win other roles at that time, so her agent sends her to once again play Emily in a renowned summer stock theater known as Tom Lake.
What happens at Tom Lake affects Lara's future and adds an element of panache to her past that her grown daughters nag her to divulge. Their mother, after all, had been a promising Hollywood actress with a film that did well. Not only that, but she dated a famous movie star named Peter Drake that summer, and they want to know more, including how she ended up on a cherry farm in Michigan.
The Pandemic brings all the daughters home and gives the family time together, affording time for Lara to tell her story.
The past of our parents
My parents are gone now, and I wish so much that I had asked more questions about their pasts. My mother, particularly, was often aloof and not forthcoming with details, but maybe I didn't believe my mother had an interesting enough past to tell a story. (She certainly had not been an actress or dated a famous actor!) Maybe I wasn't curious enough to demand answers.
Not so, however, with the daughters, Emily, Maisie, and Nell in Tom Lake.
Those girls asked more questions of their mother than I asked of mine, nudging the story out of her. Lara releases her story chronologically, in bits and pieces, as the family harvests the cherries in their orchard during the pandemic and the shortage of workers. We are shuttled between Lara's past and the present day, fitting the pieces of Lara's story together and developing sympathy and understanding for her. As Lara's daughters hear the "whole" story from their mother's perspective, they, too, gain an understanding and sympathy for her.
Last year, I predicted Barbara Kingsolver's Demon Copperhead would win the Pulitzer. This year, I would like to think that Ann Patchett's Tom Lake would at least be nominated. Tom Lake, is indeed, "distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life."
Unlike Demon Copperhead, though, Tom Lake is not brutal or depressing. It's not focused on poverty or drug addiction or the bigger problems of the world. (Remember Gilead by Marilyn Robinson, that quiet, Pulitzer-winning contemplation of spirituality?) Tom Lake is a gentle kind of novel focused on family dynamics, the precious power of memories, and the halcyon days of youth. It showcases the difference between simple rural life and the artificial glamor and high-priced lifestyles of Hollywood.
Ann Patchett's novel illustrates the worry about the future of American farming in the face of climate change. It explores how ambition and great talent can be derailed. It reinforces the knowledge that some secrets in our past will NEVER be shared and will be buried in the chambers of our hearts when we die.
Mostly, it's a story of a family who loves each other, and that's a story worth reading.
All of those themes are wrapped in the overstory of a classic American play, Our Town, and the wisdom of the stage manager who reminds us that most people live and die without recognizing the beauty of the life they live.
Unless, of course, you're Lara Nelson.
Don't miss Tom Lake, a touching novel by Ann Patchett.
Buy Tom Lake from Amazon (online retailer)
Buy Tom Lake from Bookshop.org (supports independent bookstores)
Buy Tom Lake from Barnes and Noble (brick and mortar & online retailer)
Buy Our Town from Amazon (online retailer)
Buy Our Town from Bookshop.org (supports independent bookstores)
Buy Our Town from Barnes & Noble.com (Brick and mortar & online retailer)
Buy Our Town from Better World Books (Supports literacy initiatives)