The shimmering waters of Tom Lake in Michigan glitter with memories as Lara, the middle-aged narrator of Ann Patchett’s novel, unwinds her past while picking ripe cherries in a family-run orchard. Her three daughters, Emily, Maisie, and Nell, have joined her during the great shutdown of 2020 occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. Patchett spins her narrative through many revolving doors of time and space, chiefly as preserved in the amber of literature. Central to all this is Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town, published in 1938, that touches upon the everyday lives of characters in small-town America with a simplicity that makes them universal. These characters, with their ups and downs, could be us.
The exuberant description of the lakes of Michigan by a younger Lara reminded me of a letter by the celebrated botanist Dr E.K. Janaki Ammal, who is my grandaunt on my mother’s side. In August 1930, while doing her PhD at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, she wrote to her sister, Parvathi, back in Kerala: “I am spending a week at the very apex of the Michigan Peninsula—you will see from the map that we are at the centre of the Great Lakes region. Lake Erie on one side and Lake Michigan on the other. The whole state of Michigan is full of beautiful freshwater lakes and the University has an excellent station for research near Cheboygan for Summer Work. Since my work keeps me in the Botanical Gardens, I have not been able to come up here—but this summer I decided to take a short holiday.
“The novel teems with literary figures—while Chekhov flits past the cherry orchard, there is a King-Lear-meets-Edgar-Allan-Poe moment when we hear a raven cawing “Nevermore” in a Shakespearean lament.”
This is a lovely place—my backyard is the lake shore and I just have to run in for a bath when I feel inclined. There are small wooden houses scattered about the place with just the necessary camp furniture—for both students and staff. Most of the professors bring their family. So this is a very interesting sociological colony. I have a guest house all to myself and am having a real rest.”
In Patchett’s novel, most readers will inevitably find echoes of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic, Little Women, and its world of Concord, Massachusetts, where the four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—make their way under the loving eyes of their mother, Marmee. In Tom Lake, Lara is both the mother and a young woman as the narrative alternates between the past and the present, between 1988 and 2020. The young Lara wants to have a career as an actor. Innocent and starry-eyed, she could just as well be Dorothy from that other American fable about being lost and found, The Wizard of Oz.
Lara is summarily catapulted from her New Hampshire home by a movie agent named Ripley and tossed into a tornado of strange encounters. After a short stint as a film actor, Lara is whisked off to a small town on the margins of Tom Lake. She has to play the part of Emily in a local theatre production of Our Town three days a week and, for the rest of the time, act in Fool for Love, a 1983 play by Sam Shepard. Lara falls for the lead male actor of Fool for Love, Peter Duke, and as hinted by the title, the affair does not bode well for Lara. Duke would later transform himself into a famous actor, with a little help from Ripley, while Lara would find her own path.
In real life, Patchett owns a bookshop named Parnassus in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives. So, it is hardly surprising that her novel teems with literary figures—while Anton Chekhov flits past the cherry orchard, there is a King-Lear-meets-Edgar-Allan-Poe moment when we hear a raven cawing “Nevermore” in a Shakespearean lament. When we meet Lara’s family during the lockdown, they could be channelling Bocaccio’s Decameron as they seek refuge in the farm. The daughters pick the secrets of their mother’s brief encounter with Peter Duke as relentlessly as they gather the cherries for commerce. Their father, Joe Nelson, seems more like the Scarecrow from the Oz saga, who has been known to mutter to himself sometimes: “I can’t remember a thing! There’s nothing but straw in here.”
The literary echoes are Patchett’s way of remembering a gentler, sweeter America, whose fabled cherries she pops into the reader’s mouth. In a moment of truth when Nell wonders whether picking cherries is enough in a world that is going up in flames, we get a confession from Lara that could be Patchett’s too: “I can do nothing about the world and the flames beyond leaving face masks in the fruit stand, but the past in which we are trapped is joy itself.” She adds: “I am sorry.” And Nell shrugs in reply: “At least we have the past.”
Geeta Doctor is a Chennai-based writer, critic, and cultural commentator.