After a long spell of sickness left me with no bandwidth for reading, I read this one first. What a fortuitous choice! This is definitely one for the list of favorites for the year.
The book opens with the narrator telling the story of being recruited to help with auditions for her small town’s production of Our Town when she was in high school. Her observation of the many auditions left her thinking “this was the first day of my true education….Watching these men recite the same lines so badly while polishing their glasses with giant white handerchiefs really made me think about my life.” She knew she could do a better job than those who auditioned for Emily, so she jumped in at the last minute, got the part, and changed everything.
We move then to the spring of 2020. Our narrator Lara and her husband Joe have a cherry tree farm near Traverse City, Michigan where their three daughters are sheltering from the pandemic with them and later pick cherries with only a skeleton crew. What a pleasure to read a book set where my brother lives, a place I love for its beautiful countryside.
Lara confesses that all of them being together fills her with joy. She said, “I understand that joy is inappropriate these days and still, we feel what we feel.” I remember how grateful I was throughout that time to spend time online with my grandchildren. If not for the pandemic, they all would have been busy in school, but they were content to have us read to them. Seeing their faces each day meant so much to me.
The heart the book is the story of Lara’s experience playing Emily in summer stock where she met the irresistible Duke, who later became a famous movie actor. Lara tells us, “Thanks to his ubiquitous presence in the world, the man I’d spent a summer with took up residence in our home, and still I thought of him remarkably little.” The story is told as the three daughters and Lara pick cherries, and sometimes includes Joe. Some parts of the story Lara tells us, but not the others.
If this sounds thin, well, it wasn’t. It’s a book with wonderful storytelling, engaging characters, and insights that I loved. This is my sixth book by her (Bel Canto was in the pre-blog era) and I love them all. The author’s fondness for the play Our Town is in evidence here; because of that I watched the 1940 movie of the play. I found it unpleasant throughout but I do not blame the play, after all, the end was changed into a happy Hollywood ending.
After a bit of success in the world of theatre, Joe and Lara make the beautiful Northern Michigan farm their happy life’s work. One of their daughters has always loved that life for herself and will marry the farmer next door. The two revealed to the family that they do not plan to have children, as they recognize that the farm is doomed by climate change. Though the two of them love the life both of their families had, they believe it will not continue. The issues discussed called to mind a book I recently read (Locust Summer) about the end of a multi-generational farm in Western Australia.
Ann Patchett, Tom Lake, Harper, 2023, 309 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available in the public library.