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Tom Lake is an absolutely mesmerizing Ann Patchett book — a #1 New York Times bestselling Reese’s book club selection. And, this Tom Lake review gives both something more to reflect on for those who read it, as well as helpful tips for indulging in this literary masterpiece for those who have yet to read it. It’s time to take your reading experience to the next level. Let’s “explore”travel” to Tom Lake!

tom lake by ann patchett held up in a reading room.

This is a SPOILER-FREE article.

Tom Lake Review

Beautiful prose, a sentimental tone, and plot twists make this a five-star read.

Tom Lake is one of those books that starts off very good, then gets better and better as you become more immersed and invested in the story of Lara, eventually rising to the level of one of the best you’ve read all year.

If you know Patchett’s work, then you know this kind of storytelling is one of those things that only she can accomplish so well in the written word.

Just a few months before this novel’s release, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal “for putting into words the beauty, pain, and complexity of human nature.” And, that’s exactly how Tom Lake reads.

It begins with three otherwise bored and homebound sisters seeking entertainment through a juicy and salacious story about their mother’s dating a celebrity before they were born (a celebrity!), but it becomes something that means so much more.

Yet, throughout, Tom Lake also remains very subtle at the same time. Patchett’s restraint gives it that much more power.

Though Patchett began this novel before the COVID-19 pandemic, her ultimate use of it as the timing for this story was well-placed while also not making this a story about the pandemic.

Known for exploring complex family dynamics and known for placing her unique characters in forced proximity, here, Patchett’s use of quarantine simply allowed for time and space for this family to come together, reflect on the past, and allow it to inform their present and future.

Often, stories are reminiscent of threads being woven together, but Tom Lake felt more to me like a tangled strand of jewelry that is delicately pulled apart, knot-by-knot, into one fine and delicate strand.

And, I mean that in the best way possible. It was all right there all along, it just needed to be carefully laid out.

In looking back at the past, the Nelson family becomes able to find more meaning in the here and now.

This reflection isn’t a “sliding door” metaphor about “what if” things happened differently — it’s clear from the outset that Lara’s life is better, and far more enriched, as it turned out. Her Summer at Tom Lake was but a fleeting moment of youth, and there’s no question she is meant to be a cherry farmer and the mother of these exact three young women.

There is an especially poetic irony to this, as Our Town‘s Emily didn’t find meaning in the simplicity of life until it was too late.

In Tom Lake, while the past leads to the present, it is also just the past, and the pain of the past is just one of many things that occur in order to make way for the beauty that follows.

Patchett captures this sentiment poignantly in the following passage:

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.

Likewise, Lara intentionally doesn’t tell her daughters everything about her story, and there’s definitely one major plot twist she keeps to herself (and the reader), as is so often the case in real-life storytelling.

Lastly, I found it noteworthy that the Nelsons’ cherry farm houses a whole graveyard of cherished souls and that the third act of Our Town takes place at a graveyard.

The point of Our Town is to find meaning in your family’s ordinary daily life occurrences before it’s too late and, in Tom Lake, those occurrences are ultimately appreciated in their re-telling and in forever keeping close those who experienced them.

Ann Patchett has famous friends, and she puts them to good use! Her last book, The Dutch House, was exquisitely narrated by Tom Hanks and now, Tom Lake is narrated by Meryl Streep. (You can hear a sample in the Instagram post above.)

Naturally, I HAD to listen and, as expected, the narration was absolutely sublime. The voice of Lara comes across so tenderly, and the voices of the other characters never felt forced, which is often the case even with the best audiobook narrators out there.

I found myself so invested in hearing Lara tell this story in her own voice that I couldn’t turn it off. I felt like a child sitting crisscrossed on the floor at storytime just yearning to hear what happens next.

I heard Ann Patchett say she always envisioned Meryl’s voice as Lara’s, and I think she’s both absolutely right and lucky it worked out that Meryl actually read the book for her!

So, yes, I recommend the audiobook version, but I have to also say that Tom Lake is so delicately told, that I don’t think any of its beauty will be missed in print. I think it depends on whether you want a more immersive experience through Streep’s talented voice or a more reflective experience through the written word.

Personally, picked up a print copy (pictured at the top of this post) to read as well, someday. Tom Lake is one book that I KNOW I want to experience again, and I know I will take new and different things from it in another format.

Shopping Tip: New Libro.fm customers can get 2 audiobooks for the price of 1 with a new Libro.fm monthly membership with code LITLIFE.

Tom Lake and Our Town: Book Pairings

“Citizens of New Hampshire could not get enough of Our Town. We felt about the play the way other Americans felt about the Constitution or “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It spoke to us, made us feel special and seen.”

book pairings from tom lake and our town

The real reason I decided to write a full blog post about Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is because I think so many readers will have questions about how it interacts with Our Town by Thornton Wilder, and I want to guide you to have the best reading experience.

I followed the trajectory defined in the image above — the reading of Our Town the play, followed by the watching of Our Town the movie adaptation (on Amazon Prime Video), followed by the reading of Tom Lake, and I definitely think this sequence makes for the best reading experience.

If you are ONLY going to read or watch Our Town, however, I recommend that you watch it OR read an analysis alongside the text, so you can get better context that is hard to gather from the dialogue of a play alone.

about

Our Town is a short and simple three-act American play that’s about ordinary life at the turn of the 20th Century in New Hampshire. Its themes include the fleeting nature of life, and how the seemingly little things are what give it meaning, so we should be appreciative and mindful of them before they’re gone.

Frequently Asked Questions

Warning: There are spoilers in this section.

What is the plot of Tom Lake?

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is about three adult sisters who seek entertainment by asking their mother to tell the story of the summer she dated a now-famous Hollywood actor. It becomes a story of choices, the pursuit of happiness, and the things people don’t know about their parents.

What is the point of Tom Lake?

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is about finding peace with your life choices. It also shows that there are many things people don’t know about their parents.

Did Duke get Lara pregnant in Tom Lake?

Yes. In Tom Lake by Ann Patchett, Duke did get Lara pregnant. However, she aborted the baby.

Conclusion

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett is a masterful book about motherhood that enforces the meaning of life through the kind of delicately layered storytelling for which she is so beloved. Whether you read it in audio or print, and whether you read it before or after Our Town, just be sure to read it, then think about or discuss it too.

It was a five-star read for me, as well as one of my favorite novels of Patchett’s and of the entire year.

For more, check out these book club questions for Tom Lake.


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