Ann Patchett is one of my favourite writers, both her fiction and her poignant essays. Her latest novel, however, Tom Lake (Bloomsbury Publishing 2023) missed the mark a little for me. This is not to say it is not an outstanding piece of writing – I don’t think Patchett is capable of producing a novel that is not great in so many ways – but only to say that she has set the bar extremely high for herself and Tom Lake is not one of my favourites.
The story is told by Lara to her three grown daughters as they have all returned home to the cherry orchard during the pandemic to pick the crops and prepare for the next season. They all want to hear the story of their mother’s long ago love for a man who went on to become a famous film star, a man she loved and worked with when she was young. This is interspersed with the lives of the family in the present, working the farm with Lara and her husband Joe.
Patchett is a beautiful writer and the energy and hope sing from these pages despite the worldwide catastrophe in which it’s set. I think what didn’t work for me was that there were too many characters – the actual family with the three daughters (one of whom is called Emily), and the two plays and the film that are discussed throughout the novel (in one of them, Lara played a character called Emily). I found it a little confusing to continue to go back and forth between then and now, between the romance and youthful optimism and drama of the time Lara was young, and dated the soon to be famous Peter Duke, and the current time, when Lara is a mother herself and remembering and contemplating the brush with fame which her daughters are so keen to hear about. I found her husband, Joe, to be rather too nice and accepting about the whole thing; I would’ve liked him to be a bit feistier, and I found Emily (the daughter) to be too enamoured of a period in her mother’s life that was so long before she was born (especially as it is Nell who is the actress in the family, not Emily).
Perhaps this says more about my concentration span at the moment than this book, but I just did not love this the way I passionately feel about works such as These Precious Days, State of Wonder, Bel Canto, Commonwealth and The Dutch House. I guess I would put this beside some of Patchett’s other novels such as Taft and Run. A purely personal opinion. The ending had a good and unexpected twist but some of the other threads were tied up with too much sentimentality.
But for those of you, who like me, obsessively read every single piece of writing Patchett produces, Tom Lake is no ordinary book, and is certainly still streets ahead of many other authors.