Fission and Fusion: On Ann Patchett’s “Tom Lake”
By Grace LindenAugust 12, 2023
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
In Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Tom Lake, a teenager named—for the time being—Laura Kenison finds herself spending an April Saturday in a high school gym manning auditions for a local production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Laura is seven weeks from the end of her junior year, but this day, in this gym, watching her neighbors try out to be the Stage Manager, Mrs. Webb, George Gibbs, Emily Webb, and all the other members of Grover’s Corners, this is her decisive moment. “None of the books I’d read were as important as this, none of the math tests or history papers had taught me how to act,” she thinks, “and by ‘act’ I don’t mean on a stage, I mean in life. What I was seeing was nothing less than how to present myself in the world.”
In between Georges and Emilys, Laura reaches for a registration form not because she has dreams of becoming an actress but because, she thinks, “I knew that I could do a better job.” The sheet asks for her name and stage name, which she fills out with all the pertinent information, then folds it up and starts again. This time, she is Lara, which she chooses partly because she is reading Doctor Zhivago. It isn’t that Lara knows how to act, but she knows how not to act—so she says the lines as she had heard them in her head all day, and by the end, she is Emily.
But Lara in the gymnasium was many years ago. Now it is 2020, and she lives in Michigan on a cherry farm with her husband, Joe Nelson. Their three adult daughters, Emily, Maisie, and Nell, are once again home, having returned to quarantine on the farm during the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. To pass the long, grueling hours of cherry harvesting, they have demanded that their mother recount her relationship with the famous actor Peter Duke. “All three girls are in their twenties now,” Lara laments, “and for all their evolution and ostensible liberation, they have no interest in a story that is not about a handsome, famous man.” Lara obliges.
Like all love stories, Lara’s and Duke’s began long before the two ever met. It begins in the high school gymnasium following a slew of bad auditions during which grown men flub lines, Georges overreach and overact, and all the Emilys play dumb. So, when the last Emily again fails to see that Emily Webb is in fact smart—the kind of girl who asks questions plainly but generously—Laura registers herself as Lara and becomes the doomed heroine. The doors of the train car slide apart.
After high school, Lara goes to the University of New Hampshire where, a few semesters in, she sees an audition notice for Our Town and decides again to become Emily. In the audience one night sits Bill Ripley, a Hollywood director who has come to see his niece as Mrs. Gibbs and determine if she has any talent; she does not. Instead, Ripley invites Lara to Los Angeles for a screen test. He had been looking for “a pretty girl who wasn’t so much playing a part as she was right for the part she was playing.” She is whisked away from LAX in a limo and done up by make-up artists to play the girl from New Hampshire who had “hair that wasn’t dyed and ears that were unpierced.” Lara is astute, or astute enough in retrospect, to know that playing herself is the surest and fastest way out of the life she has been living.
But Duke isn’t in Los Angeles; the story that Emily, Maisie, and Nell think they know is not the one they are getting. They, especially Emily, think that Duke mattered more than he did, or that he mattered in ways that he did not. It takes a long time to get to that love, to the magnificence and tragedy of it all. First, there is California, and then New York, and then, finally, Tom Lake, a theater company in North Michigan where Duke and Lara are set to perform in Our Town.
Tom Lake is “crushingly pretty,” with a sunken amphitheater and a black box stage set amongst the blooming fruit trees and rolling hills. The closest town, a tiny smudge of a place, subsists largely on summer tourists who come to see whatever play and musical the company performs that year. To get there, Lara flies to Traverse City before driving 90 minutes north. Her room is small and its main amenities are the tiny bathroom and window overlooking the lake. While unpacking, she turns to see “a tall, slender man” leaning against the doorway. There is Peter Duke.
“Every day at Tom Lake was a week, every week a month. We spent hours in a dark theater, saying the same things to the same people again and again, finding ways to make the world new,” Lara narrates. Almost all the actors and dancers come from regional theater companies and conservatories. It is a diverse group that “nearly resemble[s] an American city.” Days are packed with rehearsals, and whatever free time materializes is spent swimming in the lake, having sex, playing tennis, and drinking. Lara recalls how Duke “threw his entire life into everything he did, into every backhand, into the modest role of Editor Webb, into me, into us.” Their world was a physical place. It was all fission and fusion.
Patchett writes precisely, crafting a real, true world, where the buildings are more than just cardboard stage sets, and the air is redolent of smashed cherries macerating in the summer heat. Far from a pandemic novel, Tom Lake just happens to be set during 2020. Patchett has said more than once that her novels pay homage to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), wherein a group of strangers are all resident at a Swiss sanatorium in Davos. In her novels, Patchett longs to find out what happens when strangers are trapped together. Of course, the Nelsons are family and known to each other, but by bringing Duke into their refuge, Patchett again has her stranger.
Duke’s specter unearths old stories, and old truths, particularly for Emily, who for so long thought he was her father. For Emily and her sisters, Duke has served, to varying degrees, as a figure onto which various romances have been projected. Imagine the giggling when they first learned that their mother once dated a soon-to-be-famous actor. The reality of him and what he meant is difficult for Lara to convey. “How do you ever get over someone like that?” Maisie asks her mother. How, she is really asking, could you ever love as strongly again? How could that first love have ever been forgotten? “You want to,” Lara explains. “You wake up one day and you don’t want the carnival anymore. In fact, you can’t even believe you did that.” And that is the beauty and brutality of first love: it rips a person open, and that is wonderful and unbearable and impossible to explain.
Like her girls, Lara recognizes that this is a story about falling in love with Duke, “about falling so wildly in love with him—the way one will at twenty-four—that it felt like jumping off a roof at midnight.” But unlike them, she also knows that life is mostly not big moments. Or rather, the moments that are actually the biggest can so often feel small and inconsequential as they happen: a spontaneous audition, a last-minute invitation, a rainstorm, a missed train.
Our Town, a play about loss and the inability to appreciate life as it happens, is the perfect foil for Patchett’s story. The play opens with the appearance of the Stage Manager, who serves as both narrator and guide. He explains to the audience the contours of the town and introduces the Webbs and the Gibbses, two prominent families of Grover’s Corners. The day begins, the milkman delivers bottles, people eat breakfast, and Emily Webb and George Gibbs go to school. When the curtain rises again, three years have passed. George and Emily are to be married. The Stage Manager shows the audience how they fell in love. Act III takes place in a cemetery. Emily Gibbs née Webb has just died in childbirth and is unused to being dead. The other townspeople who have also passed away in the interim years advise her to forget her life, but Emily instead chooses to return to Earth to relive her 12th birthday. She is overwhelmed with love for her family, for everything really. “I can’t look at everything hard enough,” she tells the Stage Manager. And then, overcome by how much she missed, how fast it all goes, she asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” “No,” says the Stage Manager, “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”
A cherry farm in Michigan is about as far from Hollywood or Broadway as these young women can imagine. They think only in terms of big things: break-ups, new jobs, getting married. In so many ways, Tom Lake is about love in all its many forms. But it is also about death and the ephemeral and how everything goes by so damned fast. It is an elegy of sorts but also a promise that there will be magic no matter what. Life is more than just one life; life is a lot of shoulda, woulda, couldas, and also many dids.
Grace Linden is a writer and art historian. She lives in London.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Batuman’s follow-up to her Pulitzer-nominated debut is another breathless exploration of college life.
In this sequel to “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” joy resides in the dirt and dust of the world.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!