If you haven’t read Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, or seen it performed, it would be worth your while to do so before reading Ann Patchett’s Tom Lake. The play is integral to the story and will deepen your enjoyment.
Lara Kenison is recounting her brief acting career to her three grown daughters, who are home to help harvest the family’s cherry crop. Emily, the oldest, is named for the female lead in Our Town, the same role her mother played long ago in a regional theatre production. Life on the farm is an annual struggle as the parents strive to carry on a business that played a major role in their courtship and marriage.
Central to Lara’s past is her romance with Peter Duke, an aspiring actor who was famous by the time her daughters were born. Nell, the youngest, wants to become an actor herself and cannot understand how her mother could have abandoned the stage for a life of hardship. The answer emerges in a series of flashbacks as Lara and her children stand on ladders, picking cherries in the Michigan spring.
Ann Patchett is a masterful narrator. She grabs our attention from the start when Lara is sixteen and helping with auditions for a local production. Each of her characters, whether major or minor, is as important to the story as those in Wilder’s classic drama. All combine to reveal how important the play is to the choices Lara will make during and after that magic summer of her youth. The more we learn of Lara’s past life, the more we appreciate her present one.
As much as I loved this book, it would be dishonest to conceal my disappointment with its proliferation of offensive language. For that reason I am limiting my rating to four stars.