Main / Books / Tom Lake / Summary

Tom Lake

Quick Recap & Summary By Chapter

The Quick Recap and Chapter-by-Chapter Summary for Tom Lake by Ann Patchett are below.

Quick(-ish) Recap

The three-paragraph version: It's harvesting season at the cherry orchard that Lara and her husband Joe own, and as they work, Lara recounts a story to her three 20-something daughters of how she once dated Peter Duke, a famous actor. It starts with her being discovered by a director, Bill Ripley, during a community theater production of Our Town, which results in a movie role. She's then cast in another production of Our Town for a theater company in Tom Lake, Michigan. There, she meets a then-unknown actor, Peter Duke. Peter and Lara have a whirlwind affair. While in Tom Lake, Lara makes a trip to a nearby cherry farm belonging to the aunt and uncle of the show's director, Mr. Nelson. It's also revealed that Mr. Nelson is Joe Nelson, who Lara later marries. Lara is charmed by the place, and Duke falls in love with it, commenting that he'd like to come back here.

An injury eventually causes Lara to step down from her role, and her understudy takes over, who Duke secretly starts sleeping with. Bill comes to Tom Lake to bring a heartbroken Lara back to Los Angeles to do publicity for her movie, Singularity, and he scouts Duke while he's there. Once the movie is released, Lara decides she's done with acting. Meanwhile, Duke is on his way to becoming famous. Lara spends some time caring for her grandmother in New Hampshire before moving to New York to work as a seamstress at a theater, where she runs into Joe again and they get together. Joe has been supporting his aunt and uncle financially, and he eventually becomes the owner of their farm. Joe and Lara marry and move to the cherry farm.

In present day, it's revealed that Duke passed away two weeks ago, drowned while boating in Capri. Lara thinks about how she saw him two more times after that summer. Once, when he dropped by the farm years after she and Joe were married. The other instance, Lara does not tell her daughters about. When she was working as a seamstress in New York, he'd called her asking for her to visit him in a mental hospital near Boston, saying he needed to see her as part of his treatment program. She went, but he just wanted to have sex with her, and she complied. Four weeks after Lara tells her daughters the story about Duke, Sebastian shows up at their house. It's revealed that Duke actually purchased a place in the cemetery from the Nelsons many years ago, having once decided he wanted to be buried in their graveyard. Sebastian is here to put him to rest, and together they bury Duke.

The book switches from the present, the Summer of 2020, to the past as Lara recounts a story to her three 20-something daughters about how she once dated Peter Duke, a famous actor. Lara's daughters are all at their farm, Three Sisters Orchards, which Lara's husband Joe runs. Emily lives nearby with her boyfriend Ben after having moved back after college, and the other two, Maisie and Nell, have come back from college to isolate during the pandemic.

In Chapters 1-5, Lara recalls how she starred in a production of Our Town in the role of "Emily". Bill Ripley, a director, was in the audience as a favor to his sister to watch his niece play a small role. Instead, he ends up approaching Lara and offering her a screen test in Los Angeles for a movie he's making. Lara is flown out twice, and she's given the role.

Meanwhile, in present day, due to many of their seasonal workers not being here, it's all hands on deck for cherry picking season. Joe relies heavily on Emily, since she studied horticulture and intends to take over the farm someday. Maisie is in veterinary school, while Nell is an aspiring actress. Emily's boyfriend Ben is busy helping his parents with their own harvest, since they own an adjoining farm.

As her story continues, Lara explains how the movie's release was delayed, so she ended up doing some commercials in the meantime. Then, after auditioning for and failing to get a role as "Emily" for an Our Town production on Broadway in New York, Lara is offered the opportunity to join a professional theater that needs an "Emily" for a production in Tom Lake, Michigan.

In Chapters 6-10, Lara arrives in Tom Lake and meets Peter Duke, who charms her. They become an item early on, and it turns into a whirlwind romance. Lara is also fantastic as Emily. She meets Duke's brother Sebastian who comes to visit frequently, and he starts dating Pallace, Lara's understudy and friend. Meanwhile, the marquee name in the show is Albert Long, who used to play a beloved character on TV called "Uncle Wallace". However, Albert's drinking has worsened lately, and the director, Mr. Nelson is worried about it.

In present day, Emily mentions that she and Ben will likely get married between the cherry and apple harvesting seasons, though she's adamant she doesn't want kids because she feels so uncertain of what the world will look like for them and how climate change will affect their farm. Joe and Lara worry about what will happen to their beloved farm.

In Chapters 11-14, shortly before the show opens, the director invites Lara to his aunt and uncle's cherry orchard along with Sebastian and Pallace. Lara is charmed by it, but Duke falls in love with the place. (It's also revealed at this point that Mr. Nelson is Joe Nelson, Lara's husband, though they don't fall in love until later.) Soon, the show opens. One night, Albert seems to be struggling through his performance, and as the final curtain closes he begins coughing up blood due to an esophageal varices caused by excessive drinking. He's taken to the hospital, and he dies a few weeks later. Joe takes over for Albert when his understudy declines to take on the role. Meanwhile, Duke has begun drinking a lot as well, using his character in the other production they're rehearsing for, Fool for Love, as an excuse since he plays a heavy drinker.

In present day, Lara muses about how she wishes she could've done more to save Duke from himself and from what eventually became of him.

In Chapters 15-18, Lara ruptures her Achilles playing tennis, and she has pull out of the productions since she won't be walking for the next six months. Pallace takes her place as her understudy, and Duke start sleeping with Pallace. When Sebastian realizes this, there's a fight and he's out of the picture. Bill Ripley arrives at Duke's behest to take Lara back to Los Angeles, since their movie is also finally being released. Lara realizes Duke also brought Bill here to try to get him to see him in the play. Bill considers Duke for a part, and Lara spends the next month in Los Angeles. After all the press and the movie is released, Lara goes home and bids farewell to her life as an actress. Duke is cast in Bill's TV show and is soon on his way to becoming a movie star.

In Chapters 19 - 21, Lara spends some time in New Hampshire caring for her grandmother Nell until she passes away. She then takes a job as a seamstress for a theater in New York. There, she runs into Joe and they get together. Joe has been supporting his aunt and uncle financially, and he eventually becomes the owner of their farm. Joe and Lara marry and move to the cherry farm.

In present day, it's revealed that Duke passed away two weeks ago, drowned while boating in Capri. Lara thinks about how she'd saw him two more times after that summer. Once, when he dropped by the farm years after she and Joe were married. The other instance, Lara does not tell her daughters about. When she was working as a seamstress in New York, he'd called her asking for her to visit him in a mental hospital near Boston, saying he needed to see her as part of his treatment program. She went, but he just wanted to have sex with her, and she complied.

Four weeks after Lara tells her daughters the story about Duke, Sebastian shows up at their house. It's revealed that Duke actually purchased a place in the cemetery from the Nelsons many years ago, having once decided he wanted to be buried in their graveyard. Sebastian is here to put him to rest, and together they bury Duke.

If this summary was useful to you, please consider supporting this site by leaving a tip ($2, $3, or $5) or joining the Patreon!

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary

Chapter 1

(The book opens with Laura “Lara” Kenisonrecounting a story to her three 20-something daughters, Maisie, 22, Nell , 24, and Emily, 26.)

As Lara’s story opens, the community theater is holding auditions for a production of the play Our Town in the local high school gymnasium. Lara is a junior in high school, and she and her best friend Veronica have been roped into helping out with the play by Lara’s grandmother who is friends with the director, Mr. Martin. Laura’s grandmother owns Stitch-It, the local alterations place in town, and has volunteered to make costumes for the show. The turnout for the auditions is overwhelming.

Lara watches with interest at seeing people attempt to present themselves. She watches as they sometimes stumble and fail at it onstage, and Lara thinks to herself that “this was the first day of my true education”. At this point in time, Lara was still figuring out what she wanted to do with her life, as she contemplated ideas like becoming an English teacher or joining the Peace Corp or becoming a veterinarian.

In present day, Lara’s story is interrupted by Maisie, who is surprised to hear that her mother once considered becoming a vet, since Maisie is going into her third year of veterinary school. Meanwhile, Emily demands to know when they’ll get to the part about Peter Duke, a handsome, famous actor.

Continuing with the story, people get up to audition for the role of Stage Manager and then people are paired off to audition for the male and female leads of the show, the roles of “George” and “Emily Webb”. There’s one “George” that is particularly good (the “good George”), but Lara is irritated by the “Emily” auditions. “Emily” is meant to be the smartest girl in school but all the actresses play her as “if she were a half-­wit”, and none of the actresses are high-school aged.

Lara thinks to herself she’d do a better job than any of these actresses, and so she signs up to audition herself. She writes in her name, Laura Kenison, but since she’s reading Dr. Zhivago and wants to feel worldly and Russian, she adopts the spelling of the character in Dr. Zhivago and writes her name down as “Lara”.

Chapter 2

Lara hands in her audition form to Veronica who is in the hallway chatting with the “good George”, whose name turns out to be Jimmy Haywood. Veronica tells her she’ll go last. Finally, Lara and Jimmy are up. When they’re done auditioning, Mr. Martin, Lara’s grandmother, and the other three men stand up to clap for them.

In present day, Lara says she’s going to switch to the “montage” version of this part of the story since it’s getting late. They ask about Veronica and Jimmy, and Lara says she lost touch with both of them. She adds that the play was a big success. It was originally planned for six shows, but was extended to sixteen shows.

They then ask again about Peter Duke, and Lara says he later played “Mr. Webb” in the Tom Lake production, referencing a different production of Our Town she did at a later time. Her daughters insist he must’ve played George, but Lara says he didn’t even if it would’ve made for a better story if he had.

Lara’s husband, Joe, soon comes in and reminds them it’s time for bed, since they all have work to do on the farm in the morning.

Continuing with the story, Lara signs up for drama club her senior year. She plays “Annie Sullivan” in The Miracle Worker and “Rosie DeLeon” in Bye Bye Birdie. She gets into Dartmouth and Penn, but ends up enrolling in University of New Hampshire with a merit scholarship. She still doesn’t know what she’s going to do with her life.

In 1984, her junior year of college, Lara sees a posting for a production of Our Town, and she decides to audition for Emily. She gets the role, and Bill Ripley, a director, happens to be in the audience on the night of the third performance. He’s there as a favor to his sister to see his niece play Mrs. Gibbs. After the show, he asks to speak to Lara.

Bill tells her that he’s casting for a movie, and he wants Lara to come out to Los Angeles for a screen test. He also asks her not to mention to others what she’s doing, since he doesn’t want it to get back to his niece, Rae Ann, that he’s casting for a part for someone her ago, but didn’t offer it to her.

That night, Lara thinks about how she might pay for a flight to Los Angeles and other logistics, but she’ll soon find out that Bill will have taken care of all of that.

In present day, Lara thinks of how nice it is to have all her daughters back in the house for the time being. Emily returned to their family farm after college, while Maisie and Nell are home for the summer and have been roped into helped out to pick cherries. Many of their seasonal worker are not available this year (due to the COVID pandemic), so they’re very short-handed and need all the help they can get.

Chapter 3

As they all get ready for bed, Lara thinks about how her daughters regress in age when they’re around each other again. Maisie’s dog, Hazel, follows her around. Hazel was a rescue from the animal shelter where Maisie worked during her second year of veterinary school. Joe is already fast asleep, and Lara thinks about how the responsibility for their farm, Three Sisters Orchard, and everything that goes into it rests on his shoulders.

In bed, Lara’s mind drifts to the part of the story that she didn’t tell her daughters. Veronica didn’t end up going to college in order to help watch her younger brothers at home. Though, by then, she and Veronica were no longer close, and Veronica wasn’t sharing her plans with Lara anyway.

Veronica had been the one to first date Jimmy, and at the time they thought they were so lucky to be hanging out with someone six years older than them. Jimmy was also a math teacher, so he’d do their math homework for them. He’d stay over at Veronica’s place and sneak out early so her mom never knew.

Then, Jimmy had suggested to Lara that they spend more time together. She’d resisted at first, but gave in. One day, Mr. Martin had passed by them in the parking lot and commented that ““Fifteen will get you twenty, Mr. Haywood”, referring to her age and potential jail time. It wasn’t until later when Lara heard that phrase again that she understood precisely what it meant.

Their affair started with running lines in his car and light kissing, but eventually he asked her if she knew a place they could “stretch out”. They were never caught, but Veronica knew. It ruined their friendship. She later wondered why he didn’t pick one of the girls in his math classes instead, but then she realized he was probably sleeping with them, too.

The next morning, Joe and Emily get to work early while letting the rest of them sleep in. Emily, now 26, began expressing interest in taking over the farm eventually when she was in high school. She was always the only one out of the three with a real interest in agriculture. Maisie was interested in animals, while Nell was interested in people.

Despite her parents reminding her that she could do anything she wanted, Emily majored in horticulture at Michigan State and completed a agribusiness management minor. They worried that she was doing “penance” for “raising hell” when she was younger by devoting herself to their orchard.

When Emily was 14, she’d decided one day that she was certain Peter Duke was her father, citing the color of her hair as proof that she didn’t belong here in northern Michigan. While the color was indeed similar, Lara knew it was certainly not true. Still, Emily threw a fit about it, and her fixation on this idea would recede and then flare up again time after time. Emily didn’t have the words to explain her dissatisfaction with and insecurities about her life, her body and herself, so instead she channeled that frustration into her certainty that she belonged in Malibu with her real father, Peter Duke.

Joe was to some extent to blame for all of this, because Lara had never intended to tell the girls about her brief romance with Peter Duke. Instead, Joe had for no apparent reason brought it up one night when the girls were watching an old Peter Duke movie that they’d seen countless times before, The Popcorn King.

“You know your mother used to date him,” Joe had said, and the girls flipped out, relentlessly asking questions. They’d then wanted to immediately rewatch the movie with their newfound knowledge about Peter Duke’s relationship with their mother in mind. They eventually wrangled them to bed, but the girls’ interest in Peter Duke persisted. Two years later, Emily decided that Peter Duke was her father. Nell decided she wanted to be an actress, “though that might have happened anyway”.

Chapter 4

The orchard has been divided up into parcels, and each person has their section to work on. Emily’s boyfriend is Benny Holzapfel, whose family owns an adjoining farm. Benny is very helpful in general, but is busy working on his own family’s farm right now. Joe has long dreamed that Emily and Benny would marry and the two farms would be joined.

Benny started showing up as a child to talk to Joe about his H-4 projects, though it was clear to Lara that his real interest was in Emily. Emily was always interested in farming and Benny as well, and her interest in Peter Duke faded.

It was Benny who believed in fresh-­market sweet cherries to help manage cash flow, and he was a sophomore in high school when he convinced Joe to swap out 40 acres of plums for dark sweet cherries. Lara was against the idea, since cherries have to be picked by hand and need to be aesthetically pleasing, unlike tart cherries where it doesn’t matter. Tart cherries are meant to be frozen and later boiled. But whereas frozen tart cherries can have a long turnaround time, sweet cherries have high turnaround and are sold for cash. Those sweet cherries have helped to put their daughters through school.

Now, as the Lara pick cherries with her daughters, they turn the topic back to her adventures in Los Angeles. Lara describes how she ends up leaving school in the middle of the semester to go to audition in California, and her grandmother sews her some clothes to wear in Los Angeles.

Lara says that she wasn’t a good actress, but others were doing too much and she did very little. However, Emily interrupts to say that she’s selling herself short. But Lara insists that she isn’t, she was merely good at being herself onstage “like being able to sing one song perfectly. It’s a great trick, but it’s only going to get you so far.” Still, Nell reminds her that they saw the movie and that she was “really good” in it.

Continuing her story, Lara says that Bill Ripley saw in her a “pretty girl who wasn’t so much playing a part as she was right for the part she was playing”.

Soon, Lara arrived in Los Angeles and she was driven in a limousine to a hotel with a swimming pool and a gift basket waiting for her. Everything seemed like something out of a movie. The next morning, they had her hair and makeup done before sending her in for the screen test. When they were done, Lara was shipped back to Durham.

Two weeks later, her mother called to tell her they wanted her back in Los Angeles for a second screen test. Again, she’s flown to Los Angeles, picked up by a limousine and taken to a fancy hotel. The next morning, Bill Ripley and the casting director meet her at the swimming pool ask her if she knows how to swim. When she says she does, they say they need to see her swim since not everyone looks good doing it.

When Lara is given a bikini to wear for her “swimming test”, she understands what the test is really for and feels a moment of rage. Then, she does a clean dive and “three laps with racing turns” to show them that she can, in fact, swim. When she gets back to New Hampshire, they let her know that she’s gotten the part, and they want her back there in four weeks.

This time, Lara is flown out first class, and she’s given a union membership and a small furnished apartment. A young woman, Ashby, is assigned to keep an eye on her and help acclimate her to things. On set, the cinematographer delights at the fact that Lara’s ears aren’t pierced. Meanwhile, Lara signs with an agent that Bill Ripley knows, and a $45,000 contract is negotiated.

Filming is soon delayed because the big name actress attached to the movie sprained an ankle, and Lara is not permitted to go back to school, just in case they need her. However, Lara’s agent manages to get her two very good commercials for — Diet Dr Pepper and for Red Lobster — in the meantime.

After the filming was done, there were a lot of delays in post-production and the release date kept getting pushed back. But Lara was happy in Los Angeles, doing commercials and two seasons of a “forgettable” sitcom.

Nell interrupts the story, frustrated with how much she aspires to be an actress, but it was so easy for someone to just hand her mother this role in a great movie and for her to continue getting jobs. Nell bemoans how her mother could have been famous, but Lara says she wouldn’t give up her life with the three of them for a life spent “making commercials for lobster rolls”.

Chapter 5

Continuing her story, Lara explains how after three years the movie still wasn’t released, and she contemplated taking an acting class. Bill Ripley argued against it though, saying it would ruin her “unspoiledness”. She notes that Bill had seemed to take some responsibility for her since he was the one who brought her out here. Instead, Bill suggests that she audition for a production of Our Town on Broadway in New York, one where a big name, Spalding Gray, had already been cast for the “Stage Manager” role.

(Nell interrupts the story briefly to express disbelief that her mother auditioned for a Broadway show with Spalding Gray in the cast, and Lara quickly reminds her that she didn’t actually get the part.)

Lara had been full of confidence that the audition went well and that she’d soon be cast. Soon, she gets a call to meet with someone named Charlie. He says that Lara was terrific, but she’s too new. If her movie was out, it’d be a different story.

Here in this dark bar, Lara thinks that Charlie wants her to sleep with him to get the part and asks what she can do. However, Charlie laughs, and he mentions how long he’s known her “uncle”, and Lara realizes he’s under the impression that she’s Bill Ripley’s niece (which Bill likely told people as a form of protection for her, though she didn’t realize he had done that until now).

Instead, Charlie tells her about the Tom Lake production company, and they’re doing a production of Our Town this summer. He says that the artistic director is an old friend of his, and they just lost their Emily and need a replacement. He encourages her to go do it, saying that he thinks it’s going to be good for her.

The story is cut off when Joe says he needs at least one of them to help out in the barn with sorting the cherries. Emily goes to help, while Maisie says she has a call with one of her professors. When they’re alone, Nell asks if she really would’ve slept with Charlie to get that part, and Lara says she thinks she would’ve run off if he said yes. Still, Nell is upset at the thought that to get what she wants, she might be asked to do something she’d never want to do.

Lara thinks about how badly she wants to be able to tell Nell that “she will never be hurt, that everything will be fair, and that I will always, always be there to protect her”.

Chapter 6

Continuing her story, Lara makes her way to Traverse City. The Executive Director of Tom Lake, Eric, explains that it’s been a troublesome season for them without their Emily. Additionally, their “Stage Manager” has always been Albert Long, their marquee name, and while he has long been a heavy drinker, it’s now become a problem. As they talk, Lara agrees to sign on for the season, which means playing Emily as well as doing the show “Fool for Love” at the end of the season.

When she arrives at the lake, Lara sees that Tom Lake is exceedingly pretty. Lara gets settled into her accommodations, and a tall, slender man comes by to bring her the schedule, who she soon learns is Peter Duke. Peter tells her a story about area, saying that it was once owned by a wealthy family, and there was a young son in the family.

One day, Tom is out walking with his nanny when he starts asking who owns the various things around. The nanny responds each time that it’s Tom’s father. Tom keeps asking and the nanny keeps giving him the same response. Finally, when Tom asks about the lake, the nanny decides to tell Tom that he owns it, even if it really is his father that owns it as well. But the answer delights Tom, and the nanny ends up telling the story to others in the house, and before long the lake becomes known as Tom’s Lake and eventually Tom Lake.

Peter then adds that there’s more to the story. When Tom is an adult, he decides it would be nice to be married at the lake, and plans his wedding with all his friends and family at Tom’s Lake. When they’re all there, he takes his bride-to-be for a walk around when she asks what the real name of the lake is. It finally hits him in that moment what happened back then with the nanny and that the lake probably is not actually named after him.

Then Peter says he tells her the truth about what happened and it sealed their love forever. As Peter finishes his story, Lara realizes Peter has been messing with her and that this whole story is something he made up. She asks him how the lake really got its name, and Peter says he has no idea.

Lara then asks him who he’s playing in the show, and Peter responds that he’s been cast as Editor Webb, newspaperman, Emily’s father.

As Lara takes a break in her story, she thinks about how she doesn’t think much about Duke, the famous actor, but her “feelings for the person who walked into my bedroom that first day at Tom Lake are more complicated”. She thinks of how wildly in love she fell for him and the mess it ended up being.

Maisie asks her how you get over someone like that and Lara equates it to a going to the carnival as a kid. It’s exhilarating and exciting, but one day you realize you don’t want that anymore and you can’t believe you ever did.

Chapter 7

Over dinner, Nell asks Joe what he thought of Duke. Joe simply says that he was talented and everyone liked him. When pressed, he adds that Duke could do a handstand. Joe also talks about Duke’s brother Sebastian, a history teacher, and how good he was at tennis.

Continuing her story, Lara shows up for the table read, and Duke introduces her to each of the other members of the cast. Albert Long who plays the “Stage Manager” character has long been famous for playing a character called “Uncle Wallace” on TV, who Lara remembers fondly. Apart from him none of them are famous.

Then, the director, Mr. Nelson, goes ahead and kicks off the reading. As they get into the third act, Lara thinks about how she’ll eventually ago out of the role because “time was unavoidable,” and she thinks of all the women she saw audition in high school who she’d thought were too old for the part. When they conclude, Mr. Nelson is pleased with her performance and, after waiting this long for an appropriate Emily, tells them they can all “breathe an enormous sigh of relief”.

A phone call cuts into the story. While no phones are allowed at the table, Maisie is an exception because the neighbors have been calling her for her help with their animals. After getting off the phone, Maisie tells them she needs to go help the Lewers whose calf has “intractable diarrhea”.

As everyone disperses to take care of various things, Lara is left alone with Maisie’s dog, Hazel. She tells Hazel that she’s always tried to convince herself that “my career fell apart because I wasn’t any good, but now I’m starting to think it all fell apart because I had ceased to be brave.”

Continuing her story, Lara recalls how Duke offered to show her around. Lara asks him about their director, and Duke says that he’s a well-respected director and a lot of the people in this cast are probably trying to impress him in hopes that he’ll bring them in on a future project. Duke then tells Lara that she was wonderful today, and he gently kisses her. He offers her a cigarette, and she takes it even though she had never smoked before then. By the time they get back to their accommodations, they’re walking hand-in-hand to her room.

In present day, Joe notes to Lara that they’re alone in the house, and the two go upstairs to have sex before their daughters come home.

Chapter 8

Later that night, Lara hears when Maisie and Nell return, with Emily staying at her own place. Maisie and Nell are still sharing a room, though technically Emily’s bedroom is available now.

The next morning, over breakfast, Maisie talks about the calf from last night, and Nell talks about her night spent playing Pictionary with Emily and Benny at their place. Nell then brings up how Emily and Benny are apparently planning on getting married, and Lara feels stung that Emily never said anything. Nell quickly explains that it doesn’t sound like there was a formal engagement or anything, it just sounded like something they were planning on doing between the harvesting seasons.

As they head out for work, Nell reminds Lara not to be upset about Emily. She says that Emily isn’t mad at her or anything, they were just “thinking out loud” about their plans and Nell happened to be there. When they catch up with Emily, she immediately tells Lara that “you knew Benny and I were getting married”. Lara can tell Maisie has already spoken to Emily. After some tears and a hug, the matter is put to rest.

Emily then admits that she’s feeling overwhelmed by the idea of planning a wedding. She wants to be married to Benny, but she doesn’t want the fuss of a wedding. She also asks them not to tell Joe since she wants to tell him. As they work, Emily asks Lara if she ever thought she’d marry Duke, and Lara says no.

Continuing her story, she awakes that next morning with Duke, a naked man she barely knows. They need to get to rehearsal so he tosses on one of the t-shirts. As they head into rehearsal, she sees Pallace, a Black girl with long legs that Duke introduces her to as her understudy.

Albert is not there yet that morning, so they proceed with his understudy, Lee. Lee is terrible. Albert finally shows up, blaming an alarm clock malfunction, at the end of the first act.

The girls cut in with questions about Lee and why he was cast. Lara says his family had money and hosted fundraisers for Tom Lake. Lee loved theater, but didn’t want to be an actor. He just wanted to be able to hang out with the actors. They also ask her about George, but she genuinely can’t remember him.

She thinks to herself that “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.”

Chapter 9

Despite his drunkenness, Albert Long is fantastic as the “Stage Manager”. They’re concerned that his drinking seems so much worse, but they continue to focus on the fact that he’s never missed a performance in the past.

As the days continue, it becomes clear to everyone that Lara and Duke are a “thing”, and Lara falls in love with Tom Lake and Pallace and Duke. Soon, Duke’s brother Sebastian shows up on the set.

(Lara’s daughters interrupt the story to chat about Sebastian, or “Saint Sebastian” as people liked to call him. Emily, the most ardent Peter Duke fan, mentions their younger sister Sarah Duke, who Lara had forgotten about, though Sarah had passed away when she was four. Emily recounts how a journalist had brought her death certificate to an interview with him, and he’d simply walked out.)

Lara continues her story, to describe meeting Sebastian. Duke is delighted to have him here and helps him to get settled in. Meanwhile, Lara goes to see Pallace rehearse in Cabaret, a show that she’s in when she’s not understudying for Our Town. Lara watches her, exhilarated. Afterwards, Pallace expresses her romantic interest in Sebastian, saying that she likes that he’s not an actor.

In present day, the girls chat about Sebastian’s tennis record and the time he played against McEnroe, a famous tennis player, when he was 17. He didn’t win. Lara thinks about how at seventeen, he “must have thought of himself as someone who would make it. The number of things I’d failed to grasp back then was as limitless as the stars in the night sky”.

Chapter 10

In addition to teaching U. S. History and World Civilization at University Liggett School in Gross Pointe Woods, Sebastian is also a tennis coach there. It was a three-hour drive to Tom Lake, but if he had a few days off in a row, he’d make the drive. Pallace and Lara would watched Duke and Sebastian play tennis. By now, Pallace and Sebastian are seeing each other.

Meanwhile, at work, Our Town is now a week out from opening, and they’re starting table reads for Fool For Love, where Duke and Lara will be playing half siblings. For all the happiness and fun of that time period, Lara soon discovered that there was something genuinely mentally wrong with Duke. He’d stay awake jotting down notebooks full of his thoughts deconstructing the characters he played. He had notebooks about his character in Our Town as well as notebooks on his character in Fool for Love.

Sebastian tried to help manage Duke’s more unhinged behavior, like when he tried to punch Sebastian when he wouldn’t give him the car keys to drive to a diner.

In present day, Emily finds out that Benny asked Joe for his blessing to marry Emily. Maisie teases them about negotiating a dowry as well. Emily then tells Maisie she can be the maid of honor and the only bridesmaid at all, since they want Nell to be the officiant. Nell is delighted with her role.

Joe laments that they’re not having a proper wedding, but Emily says everyone has too much work. Lara thinks it also probably has to do with Gretel Holzapfel’s asthma, since both Kurt and Gretel are careful to keep their distance (because of COVID). Benny is the youngest of his siblings. Lara recalls how Gretel had been upset to learn she was pregnant again, having already had three kids. His three siblings are all scattered elsewhere though, and Lara thinks about how their “midlife mistake alone will save them” because of Benny’s interest in running the farm.

The joy in discussing their wedding plans is dampened a little when Emily tells them that they have no intention of having kids. They say that because of climate change they feel uncertain about what’s going to happen on the farm and planet and therefore they don’t plan to have kids.

Chapter 11

That night, Lara knows Joe spends it wondering if their other children will have kids and what might happen to their farm if there’s not another generation to care for it.

The next morning, Joe declares that they aren’t going to work today and instead they’re all going to go to the beach. Soon, the family makes their way to the shore of Grand Traverse Bay. There, Lara and Emily pick up the topic of kids again. Emily reiterates that she’s worried about the type of world her kids would inhabit if they were to have kids. Emily also points out that in Our Town, the character she’s named after dies in childbirth.

Emily also tells Lara that she used to resent her parents for burning up trees that were no longer producing enough fruit. They turned it into a party with the neighbors standing around drinking cider, partially because they needed them there to make sure the fire didn’t get out of hand, and Emily had hated it.

They eventually all go swimming, and when they’re exhausted, they return to the beach to rest. Emily asks Lara what her happiest day was that summer at Tom Lake was. Lara says it didn’t take place at Tom Lake.

Continuing her story, Lara says that before the show opens, she asks the director what his next job will be afterwards. Mr. Nelson says he’ll be in Traverse City, but he won’t be directing anything. He’s going to help his aunt and uncle out. They’re cherry farmers and that the need help on the farm and with sorting out their finances. He then suggests that they come see the farm.

So, the Monday before the show’s opening that Thursday, Lara makes plans to see the cherry farm.

In present day, the girls are delighted to hear this part of the story.

Chapter 12

On Monday, Lara, Sebastian, Duke and Pallace all make their way to Traverse City. At an antique shop, Lara picks up some linen napkins to bring as a gift. When they arrive, Mr. Nelson comes out of the house to greet them.

(Lara’s daughters interject that it’s their house now, and they express excitement that Duke had been there.)

Inside, they’re introduced to Nelson’s aunt Maisie Nelson and her husband Ken Nelson . They tell their nephew Joe (so it’s revealed at this point that the director Mr. Nelson is Lara’s husband Joe) to give them a tour of the farm. He does, telling them about the various fruit trees they grow there.

As they walk by the family cemetery, Duke comments that he’d like to be buried here, but Nelson says that he’d have to marry into the family to do that. Duke lies down on one of the graves, and Sebastian chides Duke and tells him to get up. Then they keep walking and make it to the beach, revealing another beautiful view.

In present day, Joe pops in to ask what part of the story they’re at. The girls ask their father if he was in love with Lara even then, but he says no, mostly because he realized how in love with Duke she was at the time.

Their questions then turn to their father, asking him how he could’ve worked so hard to become a well-known director, only to decide to move here and become a cherry farmer. He simply tells them that he had two lives, and that he got everything he wanted.

The kids are convinced that Lara and Joe must’ve fallen in love that day, but they’re both adamant that they met at Tom Lake, but they didn’t fall in love until much later. Joe finally decides he’s going to go swim while they continue the story.

Chapter 13

The week Our Town opened, they had also started rehearsals for Fool for Love. Whereas Lara was a natural at Emily, she struggled with her character in Fool for Love, “Mae”. Meanwhile, she starts to notice “Uncle Wallace”/Albert struggling in subtle ways, a missed mark here or line that’s delivered without the same energy there.

One night, Lara can tell something is very wrong. She sees Albert clenching his teeth in one of the earlier acts, and then by the third act, there is a scene where they’re walking together, and Albert ends up using her as a crutch. They make their way into the audience, and she sits him down in one of the chairs. Albert forces out his final lines, but as the curtain comes down, a stream of blood convulses out of his mouth. A doctor in the audience comes to look at him and an ambulance is called.

In present day, Lara explains that Albert had a rupture in the vein that runs along the bottom of the esophagus, which was the cause of the blood. He pulled through, but he didn’t stop drinking and passed away not long after.

Nell asks about Lee, Albert’s terrible understudy, and Joe says that Gene, the assistant director was dispatched to let him know he was being called up. Lee, who never thought this would happen, is told that he’s needed and he tries to argue. Finally, Gene tells him he’s expected to perform on Thursday, and Lee simply says the he would “prefer not to” and closes the door on him. Instead, Joe was forced to play the role instead.

Nell then comments to Lara that “you dated George, and then you dated Editor Webb, and then you married the Stage Manager”.

Continuing the story, the next day, Lara borrows Pallace’s car and goes to see Albert Long in the hospital. She meets his second wife, Elyse Adler, there, who mentions that his current (younger, third) wife is around here somewhere, too. Though Elyse says that this third marriage seems to be coming to a close. Elyse says she’s here to make sure he gets transferred to a bigger, more capable hospital in Chicago where he can get proper care.

Lara says that’s nice of her, considering they’re divorced, but Elyse says they have kids, explaining her feeling of responsibility towards him.

In present day, Emily looks him up and sees that he died July 28, 1988 at the age of 56. He left behind two kids. Lara looks at this information and thinks about how she didn’t realize that he had died a few mere weeks after she’d seen him that day. Lara comments that he was “my age”, and Emily points out that she’s actually 57.

Chapter 14

In the kitchen doing dishes by themselves, Joe and Lara reminisce about their time performing together at Tom Lake. She asks him why he didn’t have the assistant director step in instead, and Joe says that he liked being onstage with Lara. He admits that maybe he really was in love with her back then.

Continuing the story, Lara thinks back to going into “Uncle Wallace”/Albert’s accommodations to pack up his stuff with Duke. Duke had been breezy about it, but Lara had been upset. In the fridge, they’d opened the freezer to see it was full of vodka.

Meanwhile, in Fool for Love, Duke played “Eddie”, who was a drinker, and Duke felt he should actually drink when the script called for it. Duke also suggested that Lara do the same, including in rehearsals, which she did not want to do. But the director, Cody, went with Duke’s idea.

In present day, after cleaning up, Lara heads over to their neighbor’s the Otts, who are having an outdoor movie night, watching a Peter Duke movie called The Promise Land. The girls are already out there watching. Lara recalls how there was a while when their kids were young that they stopped hanging out at certain times, and she realized eventually that they were scared of the pear trees. Once they lost their fruit and leaves, the trees appeared murderous and dark, and the kids didn’t want to walk past them.

Lara’s thoughts then turn to Peter the character he plays in this movie where he’s in trouble, having made bed decisions and unable to get himself out of it. In it, he turns from alcohol to drugs. Lara then thinks of the Peter in real life if she could’ve stopped what eventually happened to him if she’d refused to have alcohol onstage or had done something else.

She then admits to herself it’s “self-aggrandizement” since “No summer girlfriend ever changed the course of a movie star’s life. But still, I am sorry I didn’t try.”

Chapter 15

Continuing the story, Lara thinks about how rehearsals for Fool for Love were often cut short, since the cast was only four people and they were all drinking the whole time. One day, Lara, Duke, Sebastian and Pallace are playing tennis when Duke throws up after drinking tequila all morning. With Duke out, Sebastian ends up giving Lara a tennis lesson. Lara plays her heart out until she suddenly falls over. Sebastian comes to asses what happened and realizes that her Achilles has ruptured.

In present day, the girls have questions about her injury. Lara establishes that it was a total rupture, so she wouldn’t be able to walk for six months. Nell pieces together that it meant Lara would have to drop out of not just Our Town, but also Fool For Love and Pallace would have to take her place instead.

As Nell says this, she starts crying. Lara realizes that Nell must be crying over her own career and the lost time due to being in isolation with the pandemic. Nell is “losing this time when she is beautiful and young in a profession that cares for nothing but beauty and youth”.

Continuing with the story, Lara recalls how Sebastian had carried her a long distance to his car to take her to the hospital, reassuring her that it would heal up eventually and that she will walk and play tennis again.

Chapter 16

In present day, the kids ask Joe about Lara’s two-day stint in the hospital, and he says that he went to see her, but she was asleep. He lied and told them he was her brother so they let him in afterhours, and he sat by her bed.

Continuing with the story, Lara soon receives a call from Bill Ripley, who had heard about her accident since they put him down as her emergency contact. He tells her he also needed to talk to her anyway, since she needs to come back to Los Angeles because their movie, Singularity, is being released. Bill wants her there for publicity, but he reassures her that she can do all of it sitting down. He also tells her that things are going to change for her now that the movie is coming out.

Sebastian soon comes to pick her up from the hospital, finds a wheelchair for her and takes her to watch Pallace as Emily in Our Town. Someone named Chan helps to wheel her around on the wheelchair. Pallace is wonderful as Emily, and Lara thinks about how she loves Emily’s world but would likely never play Emily again.

Chapter 17

In present day, it’s raining and there is lightning which means no work. As Hazel shivers in fear, Lara talks about how Duke and Pallace briefly get together once she started playing Emily. She says that Duke never said anything to her about it, but it was obvious for the way they were acting that something was going on.

Continuing her story, Lara explains that without a part to play, she needed something to do in Tom Lake and she ends up working with Cat, who does the costumes on the show. Lara offers to do the mending, since that’s something she can do sitting down. As they work, Cat tells her about the brief affair she’d had with Albert Long when he first started spending summers at Tom Lake.

Pallace starts distancing herself now that she was secretly sleeping with Duke, and Sebastian stops coming around as much. He returns for the opening of Fool for Love, and he mentions that Pallace had suggested that she was too busy for the last week or so to see him. When they watch them kiss in the last part of the show, it’s clear what’s going on. Sebastian leaves after the curtain falls, and that’s the last Lara sees of him.

Chapter 18

In present day, Lara tells them that apparently Sebastian had gone backstage to find them and that there’d been some type of fight between the brothers. Pallace had been crying and drink.

As the girls try to guess what happened next, Lara continues the story.

The day after Fool for Love’s opening, Lara is crying in bed when Ripley shows up, having been beckoned to Tom Lake by Duke to take Lara to California. Ripley says that Duke told him that “this place is finished for you, which I took to mean he’s finished with you and would like to see you vacated but that’s not my business.”

Lara also realizes Duke’s real reason for bringing Bill out here. Duke knows he’s meant to be a movie star and he knows Lara will get him out to see the play, even if he’s disappointed her because “he knew I was exactly that kind of fool”. She does, and the next morning they head out without her ever saying goodbye to Duke. On the drive to the airport, Ripley tells Lara that he might have a part for Duke, though he says that he resents that Duke used Lara as an excuse to drag him out to Michigan to see him.

For the next month, Lara hangs out in Los Angeles, and Ashby tends to her while Bill watches out for her. He makes her quit smoking, by telling everyone who works for him not to buy cigarettes for her. They watch a screening of Singularity, and Lara is set to do press interviews on her crutches, which charms people.

Still, at the end of it all, Lara decides to leave Los Angeles, even though Bill tells her she’s making a mistake.

Chapter 19

In present day, the girls talk about how after that Duke ended up in a show that Bill directed, Rampart, which won ten Emmys. They then pester Lara with questions about how she eventually got back together with their father, and Lara tells them that didn’t happen for another three or four years, but they plead for more details.

Continuing her story, Joe spends the rest of the summer at the cherry farm and then goes to Chicago to direct a play. Meanwhile, Lara went back to New Hampshire to stay with her grandmother until she died, who Lara had always been close to. Macular degeneration caused her grandmother to close down her tailoring shop around the time Lara had moved to Los Angeles.

Three months after Lara returns, she and her grandmother Nell are watching a show about early detection for breast cancer when her grandmother mentions that she has a lump. Soon, they’re meeting with a bunch of oncologists to try to manage her cancer. One day, grandmother Nelle sleepily mentions someone named Brian. Lara asks her mother, who tells her it’s her brother who died in the snow. When Nell passes away, they bury her next to Brian.

Afterwards, Lara ends up reaching out to Cat, who was the only person from Tom Lake that she kept in touch with. Cat knew a costumer in New York who was looking for a seamstress, so Lara moves to New York. One day, she’s working at the theater when she hears someone refer to her as “Emily”, which turns out to be Joe. They end up leaving the theater together that day, laughing.

They stayed in New York for a while, though they returned to Michigan that next summer to visit, and they stayed with Ken and Maisie at the cherry farm. Joe had been giving them money to stay afloat and even directed a few lucrative peanut butter commercials to help pay the bills. Eventually, Ken told him he’d given them enough money over time that he basically owned the farm. Then, one morning, Joe suggests they marry and move to Michigan. Ken and Maisie move to Arizona to live with their daughter.

In present day, the kids ask if she ever saw Duke again, and she says she did once more.

In October of 1997, Duke show up without warning at the farm. Emily is 4 and Maisie is 2, and Lara is pregnant with Nell. Duke is surprised to see Lara there. Lara sees that he’s wearing a wedding ring. Duke remembers the farm vividly, but has forgotten that she was here with him. She asks him how Sebastian is doing, and he says that Sebastian runs his production company now. It takes a while before he pieces together that Lara married Joe Nelson.

Duke says that he’d been thinking about asking to buy the farm to make sure nothing changes, but instead he just asks to walk around, and he wants to see the cemetery.

Joe finally shows up and shakes Duke’s hand.

Chapter 20

In present day, they talk about seeing on the news a while back that Duke had died. He was on a boat in Capri, and he drowned. They’d all been worried about telling Emily the news, knowing how attached she’d once been to the idea of him being her father.

Lara then thinks to herself about the one other time that she saw Duke, but she doesn’t tell her daughters this part. This was in New York after she’d met Joe again, but before they’d moved to Michigan. Duke was famous by now and he’d called her up to tell her he was in a hospital outside of Boston and he’d asked her to come visit as part of a therapeutic exercise he was assigned to do.

She agrees and takes a bus to Boston. By now Duke is married to someone named Chelsea, though apparently they’re somewhere in the process of divorcing. He gives her a tour of the treatment center and explains that he’s contractually obligated to stay here and go through this program. He has to check in with them every 15 minutes, but he asks her to go to the bathroom, and he says he’ll meet her in there. When she does, he lifts her up onto the sink and they have sex. Then, she leaves.

Outside, Lara feels shaken and runs into Sebastian. They have dinner together and catch up. Sebastian tells her that the Pallace thing didn’t last long, and he didn’t see her again. He also tells her that Ripley has been helping him find jobs in Los Angeles. He adds that Ripley was always in love with Lara, but he was “waiting for you to grow up, you know, so it wouldn’t seem so weird”.

Chapter 21

In present day, it’s been six weeks since Duke’s boating accident and four weeks since Lara finally told her daughters the Peter Duke story. Sebastian Duke, now 61, shows up at their house. He’s here to lay his brother, who was 60 at the time of his death, to rest.

Sebastian talks about how Peter had fallen in love with place when he came to visit and kept wanting to purchase it. He’d made numerous offers to the Nelsons, and finally he’d asked if he could just purchase a place in the cemetery. He offered them a sum that was more than five years of revenue combined, so they said yes, and it probably paid for their move to Arizona.

The book ends with them all finding a place for Duke and burying his ashes. Lara thinks about how Sebastian is welcome to be buried here someday too if he likes.

If this summary was useful to you, please consider supporting this site by leaving a tip ($2, $3, or $5) or joining the Patreon!

Share this post


Bookshelf -- A literary set collection game