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KPCW invites members of the Friends of the Park City and Summit County libraries to review novels and non-fiction every month.

November Book Review | 'Tom Lake'


Ann Patchett’s new novel, “Tom Lake,” is a fascinating exploration of how transitory memories infuse and enliven the stories we tell ourselves and each other.

Ann Patchett’s most recent novel, “Tom Lake,” made me think of my mother-in-law. She died this past year and left behind a life history she’d written for her grandchildren. Having lived through part of her story, I know there were details that she chose to include and others that she very deliberately left out. At least, I think it was deliberate. Although I understand that she wanted gloss over the uncomfortable details, I wish if it could’ve been told the way Ann Patchett tells Lara Nelson’s story in “Tom’s Lake.”

Lara, her husband Joe, and their three daughters are all back together to harvest the cherries on their family farm due to the lack of pickers during that first summer of the pandemic. The three sisters prod their mother into telling them about her first love. It was a romance in the 1980s with the soon to be discovered, wildly handsome and charming actor, Peter Duke, at a summer stock theater called Tom Lake.

Duke, as he came to be known, rose to super-stardom; the Nelson girls had grown up with his movies. He’d become a little bit of an obsession for them. Emily, the oldest sister, became convinced as a teenager that he was her father, not Joe. Lara hadn’t talked much about Duke. Now, this pandemic summer, the girls wanted to know what really happened. How did their mother end up here, picking cherries, instead of living a glamorous Hollywood life?

With alternating chapters, the novel moves effortlessly between then, the summer at Tom Lake, and now, life on a farm with three adult daughters and a devoted husband. Back then, Lara played a winsome, naive Emily and Duke played her wise father in a regional production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” An admirable, upstanding relationship on stage was definitely not so behind the scenes. That summer, Lara discovers all kinds of splendors and sensations fueled by inordinate amounts of alcohol and sex.

As the story of Lara’s love affair with Duke unfolds so do the threads that intertwine her reckless, seemingly carefree summer at Tom Lake with her choice to give up acting and raise a family, her daughter’s almost unbearable teenage angst, and all of those ripe cherries.

For me, the interest of this novel is in the telling. What will Lara’s PG-13 version of her story include and what will it leave out? Her husband says, “it’s the sex,” but it’s far more than that. As the reader, we get both stories, what she tells them and how she really remembers it. Although we’re never sure about the reliability of those memories. Do we really get the whole story?

Patchett’s writing dazzles throughout. In “Tom Lake,” she beautifully explores the complexities of how our memories and life choices—both what we choose and what we don’t choose—infuse the stories we tell ourselves and our loved ones, however fractured those memories might be.

Think about your own story, what you’ll include and what you’ll leave unsaid. We all shape the story that will be left behind, deliberately or not. Join the long list of holds at the library to read “Tom Lake.” Download the audiobook from Libby and listen to Meryl Streep’s narration—a perfect choice, I think. Maybe you’ve already read it. Read it again. I will. I might remember the story differently than the way it was told. This is Kirsten Nilsson from the Summit County Library.