In her recent bestselling novel "Tom Lake", Ann Patchett includes a note of thanks to the late playwright Thornton Wilder, the creator of the iconic play "Our Town". Patchett says the play has been "an enduring comfort, guide and inspiration throughout her life" and her "goal is to turn reader's back to "Our Town." The message of "Our Town" is largely the message of "Tom Lake": pay attention in your life, it is the many small moments of beauty and connection that compose a happy, well lived life.
"Tom Lake" is set in the spring of 2020 during the pandemic. The narrator, Lara, tells the story of her younger more glamorous life to her three daughters who have come home to help in the family cherry orchard in northern Michigan. Lara was "discovered" by a talent agent when acting in a local production of "Our Town". She went to LA, starred in a movie and two seasons of a sitcom, then went to Michigan to reprise her role as Emily in "Our Town" at the Tom Lake theatre company. While there she shared the stage and a romance with the later famed actor Peter Duke. Lara's youngest daughter Nell is an aspiring actress and her eldest daughter Emily fixated in her teen years on the idea that her real father was Peter Duke, so Lara's story has a particular resonance for the girls. Patchett switches between the present and the past, juxtaposing the extreme highs and lows of youth with the steadier joys and anxieties of middle age. She contrasts the way we understand our lives and relationships in the moment and then as we age. How we answer the question of what our purpose in life is and what makes it worth living, is determined by our present reality.
Ann Patchett is a beautiful writer. Most of her books explore the many permutations of family relationships in controlled environments. "Tom Lake" is no different, but it is a book that feels as though it were written to illustrate Thornton Wilder's point that life is fleeting, and we should enjoy moments of joy that come our way rather than focusing on a hypothetical future. The people in this novel aren't as fleshed out as in her previous work. Lara's feelings and relationships feel unrealistic in places. That said, Patchett has captured the way past and present blend together over time to make us who we are. Appropriately, Peter Duke is buried in the family cemetery on Lara's land where her family lounges on summer days.