If you read Ann Patchett’s 2011 essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, you might remember the author writing that children have “a real failure of imagination when it comes to thinking of the adults in their lives as having done anything of interest, anything at all, in the time known as before.” I get this. From both perspectives.
I can still remember the revelation in my late teens that my own parents weren’t just helpful and boring creatures placed on this earth in service of me. And now, with two children myself, I see their eyes glaze over when I start sentences with “when I was in my early twenties”, and I try not to be offended when they ask me for snacks halfway through a tale about my ‘intrepid’ gap year.
It seems Patchett wasn’t finished exploring the idea herself. As well as the lives parents have led before their children were born, the author’s latest novel is about love in its many forms—youthful, married, maternal, familial, old and new, lost and reimagined—and the difference between choice and destiny.
It’s not very sophisticated for a reviewer to allocate a paragraph to gushing, but please, indulge me for a moment.
It’s not very sophisticated for a reviewer to allocate a paragraph to gushing, but please, indulge me for a moment. This novel was both the loveliest book I’ve read this year and the one that has left the deepest impression. The one that made me reflect and readjust my feelings about my own youth. The one that made me think about the stories we share and how we tell them. And the one that seduced me with its sun-dappled advertisement for contentment.
How does Patchett do it?! For a writer who is so committed to reassuring readers that there is goodness in the world, her books somehow avoid being described as glib and trite. There is a decency to them that feels wholesome, and, yet, this never eclipses the complexities of her characters’ lives. Add in some beautifully measured prose, together with sophisticated storytelling techniques that aren’t always noticed on account of their sophistication, and I think you’ve got yourself a near-perfect novel.
Set on a cherry orchard in Michigan during the pandemic, Tom Lake is the story of Lara telling her grown daughters about a young romance she once had with a now-famous actor. Lara, too, had her own 15 minutes of fame as an actress, but now lives and works on the farm she shares with her husband and daughters.
Add in some beautifully measured prose, together with sophisticated storytelling techniques that aren’t always noticed on account of their sophistication, and I think you’ve got yourself a near-perfect novel.
Told between cherry-picking, cake-making and garment-mending (see what I mean about decency), the story takes days to tell and, in its own way, becomes a story within a story interrogating the nature of storytelling itself.
The daughters, all roughly the same age as Lara was when she fell in love with the actor, begin to reconstruct how they perceive both their mother and themselves. That Lara’s youth—and all the joy and anguish and mistakes that came with it—can now be told in narrative form complete with three acts and main characters, contains a lesson both for the daughters and reader.
“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.”
Don’t be put-off by the fact that it’s a pandemic novel if that’s a genre you have decided to avoid. It’s not the virus Patchett focuses on but the intense intimacy the pandemic created among families, and the nostalgic sparkle it gave everything that happened before it. Perfect parameters for a novelist with a proclivity for family dramas if you ask me.
A warm and wistful, can’t-get-enough-of-it meditation on love, mothers and daughters, and the ephemerality of youth. It’s too soon for a reread so I’m going to listen to Meryl Streep narrate the audiobook instead.