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Tom Lake
(Review, Synopsis & Summary)

By Ann Patchett



Book review and synopsis for Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, an understated novel about falling in love, family and the choices we make.

Synopsis

In Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, Lara recounts a story to her daughters about a brief romance she once shared with a handsome, famous actor, Peter Duke.

Beginning with a community theater audition as a junior in high school from a small town in New Hampshire, Lara tells them about her experiences that led her to Los Angeles and New York and eventually to the cherry orchard she and their father, Joe, own.

This intimate and beautifully written story is about falling in love, growing up, about family and the decisions we make and the paths we choose to go down.

(The Full Plot Summary is also available, below)

Full Plot Summary

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary
See the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of Tom Lake
Quick Plot Summary

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.

For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.

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Book Review

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett was released in August of 2023, and in addition to being a Reese’s Book Club pick, it also has the distinction of having an audiobook that’s narrated by Meryl Streep.

I wasn’t sure at first if it was going to make the cut onto my already lengthy reading list, but the Meryl Streep thing pushed it over the edge.

In Tom Lake, an older woman, Lara, tells her three twenty-something daughters a story of how she once dated a famous actor. Going back and forth from past to present, it describes her current life at the orchard that she and her husband Joe own, and it retraces her history beginning with getting cast in a community theater production of Our Town where she was discovered.

I’ve loved Ann Patchett’s writing for a long time, starting with when I read Bel Canto as a teenager, just starting to dip my toes in the world of literary fiction. Bel Canto was one of those books that reminded me why I love to read.

There are so many small insights and observations scattered throughout Patchett’s novel, about love and life and the things that you forget and the things that stick with you. The writing is nuanced and intimate and evocative in the most lovely way, as she describes their life on their orchard.

Some Criticisms

But as much as I delighted in all of that, at some point the story itself feels a little directionless. It’s a lovingly written book, but my mind started to wander since there were such low stakes in the narrative, both past and present. It’s a story about Lara’s life and the choices she made to go from a brief acting career to a life on a farm with a loving husband and three loving kids. It’s all nice and well, but quaintness of this story and, more importantly, knowing how it all works out, meant that there wasn’t as much forward momentum or tension in the story as I would’ve preferred.

Meanwhile, Tom Lake is meant to be about Lara’s relationship with the famous actor Peter Duke, but those were the parts where my mind started to wander the most. It’s a romance we all know is going to end, and the book keeps reminding us he’s not the one long past the time that’s already well established. His self-centeredness and general unsuitability becomes apparent very early on. I almost think that perhaps it was too early on, since then I was stuck with the realization that I’d have to wade though a whole romance that I’d already lost interest in.

The book tries to frame it as this wildly passionate love affair, but there’s something inherently uninteresting to me about a relationship failing due to someone not caring enough, or not being willing or able to be in a lasting relationship. There’s nothing intriguing or special about it, since it takes nothing to break something or treat someone poorly.

Meanwhile, the man she ends up with was already introduced to us in the first chapter. The present day dynamics of the family captured my interest more, and I kept wishing the Peter Duke stuff would be left behind already.

Read it or Skip it?

Patchett’s capable and insightful writing as well as Meryl Streep’s fantastic narration carried me through large swaths of this book, but to be totally honest there were a few stretches where I got a little bored reading this low-stakes story. Especially when the romance with Peter Duke hits its stride, my mind kept wandering off.

There are a few mildly unexpected things mixed in there, but overall there just wasn’t always enough drama or real tension in the book to propel the story forward. I think if you’re looking for a quaint and unassuming story, this might still appeal to you, but I think I was hoping for something a little more.

Oh, one last thing is that I found the last chapter and essentially the ending of the book to be extremely bizarre. I kind of hated it. It doesn’t really change anything, so it doesn’t matter, but it felt totally out of place to me. It seemed like Patchett was searching for some way to end the story and landed on … whatever that was.

See Tom Lake on Amazon.

Tom Lake Audiobook Review

Narrator: Meryl Streep
Length: 11 hours 22 minutes

The narrator is Meryl Streep, of course it’s good.

If this story interests you, it’s a good one to listen to via audiobook. Honestly, I don’t know if I would have gotten through this book if it wasn’t narrated by Meryl Streep.

Hear a sample of the Tom Lake audiobook on Libro.fm.

Discussion Questions

  1. What part of Lara’s story interested you the most? What appealed to you about that part of her story?
  2. Why do you think Emily was so upset about the trees being burnt (Chapter 11) as a kid? Why do you think she brings it up now?
  3. Why do you think Lara gets involved with Jimmy? Why do you think she falls for Peter?
  4. Which one of the family members did you identify with the most and why?
  5. Why do you think it upsets Lara so much that she might never play Emily again?
  6. What did you think of Lara’s decisions about Peter and how she handled that relationship?
  7. What were you favorite and least favorite parts of the book?
  8. Why do you think Lara decides to give up her acting career?
  9. What did you think of the ending of the book?

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of Tom Lake



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