Tom Lake (2023)

by Ann Patchett

Critical Evaluation

“Tom Lake” collects enchanted places, sites of congregation like the lake and the stage, or like Chekhov’s cherry orchard and the town in “Our Town.” Patchett suggests that in these timeless locales, with their renewable springs of ghostly personae, characters can safely warehouse past versions of themselves and others. Or at least that’s the idea. Rather than fear the cemetery, Lara and her kids love it and its promise of “everlasting inclusion.” As a girl, Emily “liked to run her fingers along the tombstones, the letters worn nearly to nothing, the stones speckled with lichen.” Lara herself “would lie in the grass between the graves, so pregnant with Maisie I wondered if I’d be able to get up again, and Emily would weave back and forth between the granite slabs, hiding then leaping out to make me laugh.”

As “Tom Lake” goes on, the determined positivity begins to feel slightly menacing, or at least constrictive. Is Lara really that happy? Or is she hiding inside the myth of her happiness to avoid confronting her daughters’ unhappiness and her own shortcomings as a parent? I was tempted into a paranoid reading of the three Nelson girls, scanning for covert signs of distress. Nell, like her mother, dreams of the stage, but she is stuck wearing sad quarantine lipstick, thumbing through plays in her bedroom at night, and practicing lines with her friends over Zoom. Dependable Maisie is always off to deliver a litter of puppies or tend to a calf with diarrhea. Was she forced to grow up too soon? Meanwhile, Emily declares her intention not to procreate. Her decision is a poignant nod to climate change, but it could also be glossed as a salvo against a controlling parent.”

Waldman, Katy. “Ann Patchett’s Pandemic Novel.” The New Yorker. July 31, 2023.



First Excerpt

“There is no explaining this simple truth about life: you will forget much of it. The painful things you 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.”

Second Excerpt

““Hazel heads up the hill to the cemetery where generations of my husband’s people are buried behind a low iron fence, and for whatever reason I follow the dog. A plush vegetation is knitted over all the graves, and I think of how meticulously Joe’s aunt had kept things here, but this is not the summer for weeding. The cemetery is the highest point on the property and would have been the logical site for a house, the way it overlooks the trees and the barn and all the way to the edge of the lake, but those first settlers gave the best land to their dead, the very first a two-year-old named Mary. One by one they followed her up the hill until twenty-nine of them were resting beneath the mossy slabs, and there they wait for us to join them. That’s what life was like back in the day, you buried your children, your husband, your parents right there on the farm. They had never been anywhere else. They had never wanted to be anywhere else.””