Big News: Ann Patchett Has a New Book!
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As Ann Patchett will tell you herself in a one-minute tiktok video, her new book, Tom Lake, will be released on August 8, 2023 by Harper Collins. She reports that the book is about the play Our Town and that it is set in a cherry orchard in Michigan. Though this story takes place at the beginning of the pandemic, it is not a book about the pandemic. Rather, the pandemic is a device to get the three twenty-something-year-old daughters of Lara and Joe Nelson back from college and home under one roof, well actually, under the skies of the orchard. As they all work together to harvest the fruit, the girls prevail upon their mother to entertain them with the story of her earlier life. They know the basics, but they want the details.
When Lara was twenty-four, she was an actress with a summer stock theater company called Tom Lake. There was a young male actor at Tom Lake with whom Lara acted and had a relationship. This actor, Peter Duke, went on to become a major star and heartthrob. He is on the cover of every celebrity magazine. Now that they are adults, the girls want to know everything. Lara’s goal is to tell all while telling nothing. Of course, readers get the full story as Lara thinks things through and picks and chooses what to say aloud.
Before I say more, for those like myself who have never read or seen Our Town (gasp!), rest assured Patchett does a fine job of telling you everything you need to know in order to understand her references.
Evidently, the play is told in three acts, and likewise, I found three parts to the book. Here they are with a quote or two from each section to give the flavor of Patchett’s writing:
Lara’s early life including her acting career:
In Our Town, Emily is the female lead, and Lara ends up playing the part three times. She plays it in high school, in college, and then in summer stock when she is almost twenty-five. She’s actually hoping she will get a fourth go at it on Broadway opposite Spalding Gray (a real actor who famously starred in Our Town.) But at her first rehearsal at Tom Lake, it occurred to her that she would soon age out of the part, “No one gets to go on playing Emily forever. That’s what I was thinking at the table read, how I would lose her a little further on.”
These years also include Lara’s relationship with Duke: “This is a story about falling in love with Peter Duke who wasn’t famous at all. It’s about falling so wildly in love with him – the way one will at twenty-four – that it felt like jumping off a roof at midnight. There was no way to foresee the mess it would come to in the end, nor did it occur to me to care.”
Lara’s middle years – marriage and family:
Marrying Joe Nelson meant marrying into his family’s cherry orchard. It included having and raising three daughters there and hoping one or more of them would want to stay around to keep the farm alive.
The oldest daughter is named Emily. The origin of her name is very clear. The other daughters are Maisie and Nell. It’s heartwarming to ultimately learn the derivation of each of those names.
There was one difficult child in the family – Emily. In her teens, she thought she was in fact Peter Duke’s daughter and not Joe’s. Though the timeline did not add up to make this a possibility, Emily was crazed in her belief. As Emily glared at her mother one day, Lara said, “I don’t remember ever looking at my mother this way, like I could eat her down to the bone, then wipe my bloody mouth on her hair. Emily was genuinely frightening, and at the same time I wanted to laugh for the sheer lunacy of it all.”
Other parents will relate to this later statement about her: “It has been years since Emily was bewitched by Duke, and years since the enchantment was broken and our daughter returned, and while we love her, and rely on her, we’ve never completely gotten over being afraid of her.”
Lessons learned and looking to the future:
Life is full of ups and downs – and surprises. “The past, were I to type it up, would look like a disaster, but regardless of how it ended we all had many good days. In that sense the past is much like the present because the present – this unparalleled disaster [the pandemic] – is the happiest time of my life: Joe and I here on this farm, our three girls grown and gone and then returned, all of us working together to take the cherries off the trees. Ask that girl who left Tom Lake what she wanted out of life and she would never in a million years have said the Nelson farm in Traverse City, Michigan, but as it turned out, it was all she wanted.”
Regarding the future: The farm has been in the Nelson family forever. Indeed, there is a family cemetery on the grounds where all the ancestors are buried. Lara hopes one of their daughters will take over the orchard when they retire in spite of this reality: “The farm is either the very paradise of Eden or a crushing burden of disappointment and despair manifested in fruit, depending on the day. I would love to leave my [children] Eden. The other stuff, less so.”
Overall, in spite of some somber tones and serious issues in the book, it was a wonderful story particularly because if was full of family love. When I finished reading the last page, I immediately turned back to the first page and began reading the story again. I highly recommend it.
A few notes in closing – Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. Thanks to Ann Patchett for her fun TikTok video, which included these two fun facts:
- The first is that Meryl Streep will perform the audio version of the book!
- And second is the very odd tidbit that Patchett wrote the entire book on a treadmill desk while walking!
Learn more about Tom Lake here on Amazon.
I love Patchett’s work and have reviewed some of her books before. Check out these three Book Blogs: