Tom Lake is a coming-of-age novel that mirrors Thorton Wilder’s Our Town in so many ways. Set during the pandemic in the Summer of 2020, Lara and her family pass the time picking cherries in their orchard while dishing on her past with a famous actor. The major themes used throughout the story are motherhood, the complexities of young love, the lives we lead before having children, the paths our lives take, and the enduring bonds of married love.
We hope your group is ready for a lively conversation and we’ll help you get there with these Tom Lake book club questions. This complete discussion guide features a book synopsis, ten book club questions, and some selected reviews from readers. At the very end of the guide we also included three book suggestions of similar reads if you enjoyed Tom Lake.
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Tom Lake Synopsis
(We always chose to provide the publisher synopsis because we feel that it’s worthwhile to discuss whether the official book description actually squared with your experience of the book.)
Tom Lake, Ann Patchett
In the spring of 2020, Lara’s three daughters return to the family’s orchard in Northern Michigan. While picking cherries, they beg their mother to tell them the story of Peter Duke, a famous actor with whom she shared both a stage and a romance years before at a theater company called Tom Lake. As Lara recalls the past, her daughters examine their own lives and relationship with their mother, and are forced to reconsider the world and everything they thought they knew.
Tom Lake is a meditation on youthful love, married love, and the lives parents have led before their children were born. Both hopeful and elegiac, it explores what it means to be happy even when the world is falling apart. As in all of her novels, Ann Patchett combines compelling narrative artistry with piercing insights into family dynamics. The result is a rich and luminous story, told with profound intelligence and emotional subtlety, that demonstrates once again why she is one of the most revered and acclaimed literary talents working today.
Tom Lake Book Club Questions
These questions have been tailored to this book’s specific reading experience, but if you want more ideas, we also have an article with 101 generic book club questions.
- Discuss how Lara’s relationship evolves with her three daughters throughout the story. How does Lara’s retelling of her romance with the infamous Peter Duke affect the children’s perception of their mother?
- Motherhood is one of the central themes in the novel. What aspects of motherhood does Patchett explore, and what conclusions does the novel come to?
- “The beauty and the suffering are equally true. Our Town taught me that. I had memorized the lessons before I understood what they meant. No matter how many years ago I had stopped playing Emily, she is still here. All of Grover’s Corner is in me.”
Reflecting upon the path you’ve taken, what were your turning points? In what ways is your past still part of you?
- Love and romance are common themes explored in Tom Lake. How does Lara’s experiences with Peter Duke contrast to her experiences with her husband and her daughters?
- “There is no explaining the simple truth about life: you will forget much of it.”
What are the implications of Lara’s statement? Do you agree or disagree with that statement?
- Examine the reactions of Lara’s three daughters to her story. How may this story differ from another character’s perspective?
- Patchett uses the play Our Town in her novel. Have you read or watched Our Town? If so, did you draw any comparisons between Our Town and Tom Lake? What role does the theater and acting play in Lara’s life and in the narrative of the book?
If you haven’t seen the play, here’s a link to the PBS production of Our Town.
- Consider the character of Peter Duke. What did you think of him, and how did your perception of him evolve as the story progressed?
- What do you think the novel is trying to convey about the passage of time and the way people change over the years? Also, how does the novel address the idea of regrets and the roads not taken in life?
- The cherry orchard farm holds significant meaning for Lara’s family and friends. How does the cherry orchard symbolize both continuity and change in the novel?
Selected Reviews for Tom Lake
(Use these selected Goodreads reviews to compare with your own experience of the book. Do you agree or disagree with the reviews?)
“There is something singularly bittersweet about being young and acting in summer stock theaters—the romances that happen, the blurring of life onstage and off. And then as you get older, the private histories between you and actors who go on to become famous—it’s all part of you, embedded but never spoken. But you don’t need to have this background to appreciate Ann Patchett’s languorous novel about a young actress discovered in a university production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and this story that pays homage to that work.”
“This was beautifully written with a confidently woven narrative darting between the past and present seamlessly. The setting of the cherry farm was romantic and evocative. However, all of this was not enough to keep me engaged in a storyline that I had no interest in. I did not care for the acting story that Lara was telling her daughters and grew bored with these bits of the novel…”
“What a disappointment in both the lack of character development and of a creative storyline. I read this book at the recommendation of multiple book clubs and on my way to a summer vacation in cherry orchard country Michigan. The story was unbelievable and unimaginative for such a well touted author and lacked any depth or development of the characters. While I appreciate the format the author constructed, telling a narrative story in retrospect with conversational interruptions, even the main character’s internal dialogue lacked consistency and any depth…”
“In the enchanting pages of this latest literary gem by Ann Patchett, readers will discover a captivating narrative that transcends the boundaries of mere storytelling. Beautiful seems almost too modest a word to encapsulate the profound beauty that lies within these pages. The author masterfully invites us into a world where characters cease to be confined by ink and paper; they breathe, they evolve, and they inhabit our very souls. It is a testament to the author’s artistry that one finds themselves so intricately entwined with these fictional lives, as if they were cherished friends.
More Books Like Tom Lake
For more mothers with surprises, consider reading Our Missing Hearts, by Celeste Ng. Here’s our Our Missing Hearts discussion guide, which includes a synopsis of the book. Ng’s Little Fire’s Everywhere also has some interesting mother/daughter dynamics at play. Patchett’s The Dutch House also plays out a quiet family drama. Here’s our Dutch House book club guide (with synopsis).
Tom Lake was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick. If you like her choices, we have a whole bunch of Reese’s book club guides.
And here are a few other ideas for you:
Good Company, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
A novel about life in all its messiness, following the lives of three women and two marriages. A story about musical theater, long lasting friendships, enduring bonds of marriage, and the betrayal from a long buried secret. If you enjoy domestic fiction, then this book is for you!
Our Country Friends, Gary Shteyngart
A novel centered around a group of eight wealthy people (some friends, lovers, and rivals) spending months together in the New York countryside waiting out the coronavirus during the pandemic. A story about love, friendship, family, and betrayals that emerge during isolation. If you like satirical, literary fiction, then you should add this to your reading pile.
All Adults Here, Emma Straub
This book is a fun Jenna’s Book Club pick. A story focused on three generations of the Strick family, with kids becoming parents, grandchildren becoming teenagers, and things falling apart but coming back together. If you enjoy psychological/domestic fiction with humor, then this is the book for you to read next!
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