Tom Lake by Ann Patchett - review by Davina Langdale

Davina Langdale

Raising the Curtain

Tom Lake


Bloomsbury 320pp £18.99

It’s spring in a Michigan cherry orchard and Lara Kenison and her three daughters are harvesting fruit. We are in that strange, interminable lull created by the pandemic, with grown children unexpectedly propelled back home. Fiery Emily, who will one day take over the farm, is already there but the other two have been obliged to return from college. Maisie, a trainee veterinarian, gets a little contact with the outside world by treating the sick animals of neighbours. Nell, a would-be actress, suffers most, with no audience to play to. In the timeless atmosphere of the orchard, the daughters persuade their mother to tell them the story they have always wanted to hear: about her youthful romance with an actor, Peter Duke, who went on to become a film star.

Ann Patchett’s seventh novel, Commonwealth, opened at a christening, where one ill-judged kiss destroyed two marriages and threw together six children, with tragic consequences; here, in her ninth novel, it’s another spontaneous action, Lara’s decision to audition for a role in a play, that replots the course of a life. After being spotted by a dubious talent agent, young Lara was dispatched first to Los Angeles and then to Tom Lake for a performance of Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s classic 1938 play about life in a small New Hampshire town. Lara’s first-person narration slips back and forth between the present and the long summers of the past as she tells her story to her daughters, reflecting as she does on her family, their farm and the passing of time.

Duke, we are told, ‘crackled like a downed power line’; he was full of all that ‘main character’ energy of a certain kind of actor. He was ‘scandalous’ and ‘spectacular’, but his attention span was short. He drank too much and became so manic that even the

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