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Vocal Book Club: Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

Read our pick of the month and join the discussion in the comments section

By Erica WagnerPublished 4 months ago 4 min read
Top Story - January 2024

Tom Lake is not your ordinary pandemic novel, though it begins in that strange — and awful — spring of 2020. It is set in northern Michigan, on the cherry orchard belonging to the Nelson family. It interrogates the family’s life and the memories of Lara Nelson, once an actress, as she talks with her three grown daughters. They are Emily, who in time will settle on the farm; Maisie who’s at veterinary school; and Nell who hopes to follow in her mother’s thespian footsteps.

Being stalled by the virus allows time to delve into the past — most particularly to recover the story of Lara’s love affair with Peter Duke, a famous actor with whom Lara shared both a stage and a romance in the seemingly distant past. Although it’s told with Patchett’s seemingly artless clear narrative style, this is a novel rich in allusion and reference. When Lara and Peter were young, they starred in a revival of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic play Our Town, a still-resonant dramatization of life in a New Hampshire village. But Our Town itself is a play within a play, the action in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, laid out for the audience by a Stage Manager who introduces all the characters. And it won’t be lost on many readers that there is also a famous play by Anton Chekhov called, of course, The Cherry Orchard, which addresses (to put it very bluntly and briefly) family life and political change.

Ann Patchett is a remarkable storyteller who in 2021 was awarded the National Medal for the Humanities; the citation from the White House praised her ‘for putting into words the beauty, pain, and complexity of human nature’ — something she’s done in novels like Bel Canto, Commonwealth and The Dutch House (I have a special soft spot for The Magician’s Assistant, I’ll reveal). And if you live in Nashville, Tennessee, you can also visit her bookstore, the wonderful Parnassus Books.

There is something wonderful in the deeply resonant ordinariness of the lives Patchett creates: everyone is special in Patchett’s world, just because they are so fully themselves. Reviewing the novel in the Guardian, the critic Rachel Cooke wrote that Patchett pulls off a ‘daring’ trick in Tom Lake: ‘Which is to take the temperature of a whole life, and by doing so, to prioritize happiness over misery, an emotion on which the novel often struggles to thrive.’

This book is one that made me reflect on my own life, my own choices in a way that was always open and never heavy-handed. Patchett’s characters are full of unforced wisdom and they always ask — lightly but thoughtfully — important questions. ‘There is no explaining this simple truth about life: you will forget much of it,’ Patchett writes as Lara considers what she had as a young woman and what she has now. ‘The painful things were certain you’d never be able to let go? Now you’re not entirely sure when they happened, while the thrilling parts, the heart-stopping joys, splintered and scattered and became something else. Memories are then replaced by different joys and larger sorrows, and unbelievably, those things get knocked aside as well, until one morning you’re picking cherries with your three grown daughters and your husband goes by on the Gator and you are positive that this is all you’ve ever wanted in the world.’ What does it mean to find contentment? What does that mean for each of us? That’s what this lovely book asks us to consider.

See the Tom Lake discussion questions and our upcoming monthly Vocal Book Club picks below. Once you read the book, let us know your hot takes in the comments section! You can also check out last month's discussion of Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow here.

Tom Lake Discussion Questions

Warning: if you haven’t read the book yet, you may find spoilers below in the questions.

  • What do you think about the way in which Patchett begins the novel, shifting the time of the narrative around page 10? We think we’re beginning one kind of story, and then we discover it’s another. How does that affect your interaction with the novel and its characters?
  • What do you think about the idea that it’s harder to write about happiness than it is to write about conflict or struggle? Can you think of other novels or films that address contentment?
  • Had you heard of the play Our Town? And if you hadn’t, did the novel make you curious to know more?
  • Lara ruptures her Achilles tendon and has to watch her friend play the starring role she’d rehearsed for. What role does loss play in this novel?
  • If you were going to recommend this book to a friend, what would you say about it?
  • Upcoming Vocal Book Club Picks

    JANUARY: Trust by Hernan Diaz

    FEBRUARY: Promise by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

    Vocal Book Club

    About the Creator

    Erica Wagner

    Lead Editorial Innovator, Vocal. Author, critic, friend, parent, cook. New book: Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge. Twitter: @EricaWgnr, Insta: @ericawgnr

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    Comments (15)

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    • Made Jake2 months ago

      Beautiful 😘

    • Babs Iverson3 months ago

      Theme of love & contentment were a nice change after reading Promise. Mr. Robertson, my Junior high school teacher introduced the class to Our Town. I am a rural country girl. Both my grand parents had farms. My parents, the Nilson's, had cherry trees, apple trees, peach trees, walnut trees, and pear trees on our property. Patchett's story awakened dormant memories. Definitely would recommend Tom Lake. After waiting four weeks, picked up the book yesterday and devoured the book in one day. There are many outstanding lines. There are two that I made a point to email myself. "Fear and Laughter: the two worst reactions in the absence of logic." "It was like being a leaf in a river. I fell in and was carried along."

    • Caroline Jane3 months ago

      11 hours and 22 mins, and I have finally heard (read) the whole tale! Whoop! Sorry, it took me so long! I guess the first question I have to ask myself is: Was it worth a near day of my waking life? That is easy - Yes...yes, it was. I have to confess that 7 hours in I was genuinely doubting whether I was going to get any joy, but then hours 8 through 10 were serendipitously beautiful (I hope that translates to those who have read it - trying not to give the story away too much!). I actually cried. It felt like I had climbed a long and winding hill and found near the top a meadow of undulating wonder. The last couple of hours, for me, went on a bit too much, but in hindsight, the journey was all completely worth it. In answer to the questions above, I confess that I did find the shift from one time to another a little odd at the beginning. This could possibly have been exacerbated because I was listening to it rather than reading. I also occasionally got a little confused as to who Lara (the narrator) was talking to, but this could well have been my inability to concentrate more than anything else. As for happiness... I am not sure this is actually a book about happiness. Contentment is certainly achieved, but the book centres on the struggles of greatness, whether achieved, born into it, or thrust upon you. It does not ring with joy. It reminds me very much of Middlemarch with Lara, as the modern-day Dorothea. Both characters find contentment in the ordinary in the end. I smiled a little when it was revealed that Lara was carrying a copy of Middlemarch in her bag when she went to the Psych facility. Sorry to say I had never heard of Our Town before reading this. Consider me encouraged to seek it out now, though. It sounds fascinating. I have googled it! On the question of the role loss plays in the book I could wax lyrical, but I won't as this is meant to be a comment not an essay! In an attempt to summarise my thoughts, I will say that there is a thorough exploration within the narrative of the maxim: "Be careful what you wish for." The story of every character seems to revolve around this. If I were to recommend this book, I would say this: The writing skill displayed on the pages of this book is second to none. I have learned a lot from reading (listening) to it. I am in awe of how a 1st person's POV can feel so omnipotent, how silkily transitions between past and present can be, how the use of seemingly superfluous side-stories can deepen tone and give light and shade (e.g. pear trees and the naming of Tom Lake for those who have read it.) This book is so well crafted it is humbling.

    • Natalie Wilkinson3 months ago

      This is our local book club selection for the month- discussion on Saturday.

    • Babs Iverson3 months ago

      At my lical library, Tom Lake and Truth are on holds. Last week, Friday, picked up Promise that was on hold. Read Promise in two days. The story triggered deep melancholy.

    • Test3 months ago

      Wondrous job! Keep up the exceptional effort—congrats!

    • Manisha Dhalani4 months ago

      I haven't read this yet but I definitely want to pick this up. Thanks for informing about the upcoming books, too. Will try to get hold of them!

    • Leslie Writes4 months ago

      Tom Lake sounds interesting. I appreciate the heads-up on the selections for January and February. I am pretty slow and a head start is nice :)

    • JBaz4 months ago

      What a great idea, something I hope I can try in the new year. Congratulations

    • Natasha Collazo4 months ago

      Got mine! Excited to read it

    • Xine Segalas4 months ago

      Ooh- I was just about to start a new book, and I have this one waiting to be read!

    • Babs Iverson4 months ago

      Immediately checked our three librsry branches. While all eight are checked out, there are more holds than books. Appears the book is extremely popular!

    • Scott Christenson4 months ago

      I like the new book club idea! As a slow reader, I think I will get started on the January pick Trust by Hernan Diaz which seems more up (down?) my alley.

    • Melissa Ingoldsby4 months ago

      I feel like your club has a very metered and honest approach to book reviews, I liked that! Can you nominate a published book to your club or would you be willing to look an indie published book, my novel The Half Paper Moon. It's a crime drama with romance and psychological thriller elements. I subscribed & hearted!

    • Caroline Jane4 months ago

      Downloaded. Intrigued about the happiness factor. I was only saying a few days ago "Sex doesn't sell anymore. These days we have sadness for that." Looking forward to this. Thank you for adding the forthcoming titles too. I hope more people join in. This has the potential to be the best book club in the world with the people who are here!

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