Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

February 1, 2024

Immutability and impermeability of change

I read Tom Lake by Ann Patchett just 10 days shy of my 40th birthday while isolating myself from my family due to COVID. The timing was impeccable. As I found myself bored and exhausted, my brain yearned for a run on a crisp, sunny Saturday morning, while my legs were content being non-weight bearing on the couch. In our New York City apartment, time felt frozen. Simultaneously, I missed my family and pondered how the years had raced by to reach 40. Emma was born seven years ago, but it feels like yesterday. I met Jessica 15 years ago, navigating the financial crisis, unemployment, and immigration problems during our first year together in the city. I questioned whether I would be able to stay in the US and if we would make it to the second year of our relationship. Even beyond adulthood, over 30 years ago, my mom would let me stay at home and play with Legos when I needed a break from school. How time and life can feel frozen in a moment, yet years feel like seconds in retrospect. The summer stock theater is not the only place where the passage of time is different; weeks may feel like months.

Tom Lake is introduced (and marketed) as a meditation on love in all its manifestations. For me, it is a meditation on time and change, as if Kierkegaard and Bergson collaborated on a book to be made into a movie by Julia Roberts (or Reese Witherspoon)!

The narrative is structured as a mother, Lura, reminiscing about parts of her life and narrating to her three adult children while they are trapped at their family orchard due to COVID during the harvest season. Besides the obvious structure of Lura’s narration that breaks the linear passage of time, Ann Patchett weaves other allusions to time and its passage into her novel beautifully.

When Lura first meets Duke in her room at Tom Lake, he is holding a schedule that he plays with on the bed instead of handing it to her. Contrary to a schedule that plans, manages, and organizes their time, their relationship is anything but planned and organized. Duke’s inability to hand over the schedule to Lura potentially foreshadows the brevity of their relationship and Duke’s incapacity to commit to structure. Similarly, when Lura is packing up Uncle Wallace’s room, the clock in the room is mentioned. It is not known who owns the clock. Lura’s travel clock is mentioned multiple times as well. Though the instrument to measure and tell time is present, they are mostly mentioned as unpredictable and uncontrolled changes are occurring. Everything in a play is rehearsed and organized, from lines to choreography, to even Duke’s pre-show routine, but real life is messy without understudies, standing spots, and a stage manager who will hold your hand to guide you to your sitting spot.

Names of characters and repetitions are also employed by Ann Patchett to break down the linear passage of time. Why would the only athlete in the book - Duke’s brother Sebastien - be named after the patron saint of athletes, as well as being the saint to protect against plagues? But more significantly, the names of the three daughters are repeated across multiple characters and follow the narrative arch. The oldest daughter is named after the character in the play that gave Lura a break to start her journey as an actress at the beginning of her early adulthood - a role Lura assumed multiple times yet cannot continue to play as she gets older. Lura can remain with Emily as her mother, her most permanent role. Even the role of Emily is fleeting, as her daughter decides to live on the orchard, yet Emily has a permanent presence in Lura’s life. Maisie, the middle child, is named after Joe Nelson’s aunt whom Lura met as a young adult but returned to as a more mature adult. And finally, Nell, the youngest child, is named after Lura’s grandmother who was the last stop of Lura’s journey as a young actress before reinventing her life as a seamstress like her grandmother. But Nell, who is named after the grandmother, wants to be an actress and leave the orchard and potentially continue her mother’s journey. Nell is a homecoming but also the beginning of journeys.

Besides the physical manifestation of timepieces and names, the story itself breaks down the orderly progression of time. When Duke visits the farm when the girls are little, there are jokes about him being Emily’s father. At the end of the story, we learn that Lura’s eldest would have been Duke’s child.

All these allusions and structures twist time around the narrative to show how Lura reinvented herself multiple times during her life. The inescapability of change is stated multiple times in the story, juxtaposed against the daily routines and lack of change. “Memories don’t change; people do,” or “Why would the past not be the future as well?” Change is inescapable and part of the journey because, no matter how hard we resist, people change, cherries ripen, kids grow older, parents move, and the planet gets warmer. And no matter how far one wants to swim to avoid change, it always catches up.

Posted on:
February 1, 2024
5 minute read, 884 words
See Also:
The Covenant of Water
2022 Reading Highlights