Review: Vivien Horler
Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury Publishing)
This a story about three sisters in a Michigan cherry orchard, about Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, and the strange time of the lockdown.
Lara and Joe Nelson live on the family farm where they grow cherries, apples, pears and rear goats. Thanks to the lockdown of 2020, the seasonal workers cannot come to help with the harvest – but also thanks to the lockdown, Lara and Joe’s three grown daughters have come home. And there, with everyone’s life on hold (except no one told the cherries) they pick fruit and talk.
The daughters, Emily, Maisie and Nell, have always known their mother was an actress in her day, with a film under her belt and a season of summer stock behind her, in which she played Emily in Our Town.
They’ve also always known that during her summer of acting at Tom Lake, she had a fling with another of the actors, Duke, who much later went on to be a seriously famous Hollywood actor.
As a teenager, Emily is so captivated by the story of the romance with Duke that she comes to believe she is Duke’s daughter, something her mother assures her is not the case. Emily was an angry teen, and Lara found her genuinely frightening. In a bid to deflect Emily, she refuses to talk about Duke at all.
But now Emily is in her mid-20s, in love with the neighbouring farmer’s son, and at peace with life on the farm, planning to take over when Joe retires. So when Lara and the girls are together picking cherries, they beg her to tell them about the summer of her romance with Duke at Tom Lake. And after years of silence, Lara agrees.
Lara, it soon becomes clear, did want to succeed as an actor, and her single film did well enough. But during the summer at Tom Lake she realises she is not an actress so much as simply very good at playing Emily. She had, she later accepts, “the artistic range of a box turtle”.
And when circumstances beyond her control rule her out of continuing at Tom Lake, she steps back, works as a seamstress in costumes at various New York theatres, and eventually and contentedly marries Joe.
Life on the farm is not easy – winters are tough in north Michigan and you don’t take “snow days”. When there is work to be done, you do it, regardless of the weather.
Patchett describes some of the hardships of farming in a grinding climate: when the crop is poor the farmer loses money; when the crop is abundant, prices drop and the farmer loses money. During the harvest the work is unrelenting; first the sweet cherries, then the tart, then the pruning, then the apples and later the pears.
And the goats were a mistake.
Lara’s time at Tom Lake was a vibrant one, with a future full of promise and a present in a beautiful lakeside setting with like-minded, mostly young, people doing nothing but rehearse, act, drink and make love.
Now, 30-plus years later, Lara has no regrets. She and Joe are content, and her daughters are a joy, their extended lockdown stay an unexpected bonus.
So Lara tells daughters the story of Duke and Tom Lake, but keeps some of it to herself – as you would. However, we readers get the lowdown, and think ha! Well, who would have thought?
I loved this book, perhaps more than any of her others. It is gorgeous and thoroughly satisfactory.
Apart from one tiny thing – why in a book about a cherry orchard is the pretty cover covered in daisies?