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Investing in a place

BOOKS | Tom Lake explores the virtue of contentment

Ann Patchett Emily Dorio

Investing in a place
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A few years ago, published a profile of Wendell Berry that describes the beloved writer’s living room. It is cozy, the article explains, and it features a rocking chair and built-in shelves “stacked with books, from dictionaries to history books to Ann Patchett novels.” The last item is an interesting note to include in a lengthy profile. Berry reads widely, it seems to assert, even in contemporary fiction. But it also suggests that Ann Patchett is an author whom Wendell Berry reads and likes.

I couldn’t help but think about this bit of trivia while reading Patchett’s latest novel, Tom Lake (Harper 2023). The novel is definitively a Patchett book (that is, a thoughtful, poignant novel of ideas that doesn’t seem like it’s a novel of ideas because it’s characters are so fully realized), but it seems to owe a great deal to Berry’s canon. It is a book about putting down roots in a place and restoring, preserving, protecting, and passing it on. It’s also a buoyant book about family and the healing power of a happy marriage. It’s melancholy and hopeful at once. And it’s also among the best of the many lockdown-written novels yet published (though an abortion-related storyline leaves a bad taste).

It’s spring 2020 and Lara, Patchett’s narrator, is hunkered down on her Michigan cherry farm, alongside her husband, Joe, and their three grown daughters. To pass the time while working amid the cherry trees or doing housework, Lara tells her daughters the story of her own young adulthood—how she briefly pursued a career as an actress, first after miraculously scoring a part in a Hollywood production and then performing in a production of Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, for a summer stock theater.

Along the way, Lara fell in love with a charming but terribly troubled young actor named Peter Duke who would go on to become a television and film star. Lara was a good actress, but, as happens, one thing led to another, and here she is, years later, harvesting cherries in Michigan while Duke, with whom she had a brief affair, is living the ups-and-downs of celebritydom, a fact that leaves Lara’s daughters fairly distraught. Life, they declare, is unfair.

In part, Tom Lake is the story of the events that delivered Lara to the present, the way dreams can crumble with a single misstep, an elegiac ode to the faded hopes of the young. But in presenting Lara’s present-day perspective, Patchett offers a novel about gratitude, about the virtue of contentment, about the surprise of discovering that the journey you have fallen into is better than the path you charted for yourself.

Patchett offers a novel about … the surprise of discovering that the journey you have fallen into is better than the path you charted for yourself.

Which is not to say that the novel is saccharine. Patchett’s prose is simple—precise but lyrical—and she is able to write about sadness with great effectiveness. In mining the drama of a locked-down family, on the one hand, and a summertime theater troupe, on the other, Patchett offers a variety of sad but brilliant characters living in the troubling shadow of the unknown.

Patchett’s are not the kind of novels that linger in grief. They are always pointing toward something higher, but they acknowledge that life is full of both suffering and joy. And in that, she’s the right author to tackle the COVID-era novel. As her narrator wisely contemplates toward the end of the book, “It’s not that I’m unaware of the suffering and the soon-to-be-more suffering in the world, it’s that I know the suffering exists beside wet grass and a bright blue sky recently scrubbed by rain. The beauty and the suffering are equally true.”

Patchett has always been interested in the profound value of the quotidian, and it’s true here, too. As if in homage to Wendell Berry, Tom Lake suggests that to invest in a place—in its past, present, and future—can make all the difference when everything around you is crumbling. You can never tell what’s coming next, but you can be conscientious about the today you’ve been given. In doing so, you become tethered to a grand history greater than yourself.

David Kern

David Kern and his wife, Bethany, own Goldberry Books in Concord, N.C., an indie bookstore that focuses on selling new and used books that are True, Good, and Beautiful. He’s also the co-host of Close Reads and Withywindle, two bookish podcasts, the latter of which is for kids.


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