Tom Lake and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Tom Lake, is a story in which a woman tells a story, in which she was, for a time, an actress—that is, a performer whose function is to tell stories. In the midst of these layers, or perhaps better, concentric circles, it is a story of ripple effects, of false signifiers, of questions of whether we really are who we think we are.

Lara Kenison has lived still another story since her stint on stage and screen. At present, she is at home at her family’s Michigan cherry orchard, in the midst of a busy season made even more challenging by a global pandemic that has severely diminished their work force. The good news is that Lara’s three twenty-something daughters are all home, and the family life she loved so dearly and thought had reached a point of departure is experiencing an unlikely resurrection. Despite all that’s happened in her life, she finds that, incredibly, “one morning you’re picking cherries with your three grown daughters and your husband goes by on the Gator and you are positive that this is all you’ve ever wanted in the world.”

As Lara and her girls pick cherries, she retells the story of the season she spent in summer stock as a young woman, playing Emily in Our Town and dating an actor who would later become a celebrity. The telling begins in the past: the reader initially finds herself in a New Hampshire gymnasium at an audition for a local production. Lara (whose legal name is Laura; she “[tossed] out the ‘u’ my parents had given me at birth because I believed this new spelling to be Russian and worldly”) is in attendance only to man the registration table. Listening to the terrible auditions becomes so aggravating that she impulsively decides to try out for the show. She lands the part and finds a character she can thoroughly inhabit.

The text arrives at present day in the midst of this retelling, and it soon becomes clear that this is a story Lara has told her girls before. Except not quite. To the girls, Tom Lake is where their mother dated the now-famous Peter Duke, “dumped him for Dad and then the two of you went from there.” They believe they have heard this story before. But Lara’s daughters’ memory of this retelling is not what really happened—in part because of the way her daughters have remembered it and in part because of the way she’s told the story before.

Early on, she says to her girls, “You remember it that way because it makes a better story.… That doesn’t mean it’s true.” And again, about halfway through the novel, Lara reminds them, “It may have been the story you told yourselves but it wasn’t the story we told you.” In addressing the reader, Lara is blunter: “I am making one part of my life into a story for my daughters, and even though they are grown women and very forward thinking, let’s just assume I leave out every mention of the bed.”

Lara’s first role leads to an agent, a trip to LA, a movie that just can’t seem to get released, and in the meantime, an opportunity to reprise the role of Emily at a summer production in Michigan. The name of the location, Tom Lake, is, like Lara’s name, a misnomer. Properly, the lake “does have an official name, the name they put on maps and water table records, but that’s no concern of ours,” Duke tells Lara at their first introduction. As the land passed from one generation to another, it came to be known as “Tom’s Lake,” which was shortened to “Tom Lake,” Duke explains, with the rationalization that “Time condenses experience.” (There is also certainly a resonance, in length, syllable count, and expression on the page with the title of Our Town.) Little by little, the narrative teaches the reader that the name we give a thing does not signify its nature completely. One dimension of a thing is really just that—one side, one facet, not the whole.

Similarly, the meanings behind Lara’s daughters’ names are revealed to honor, first, the role that brought Lara and her husband, Joe, together (Emily); then Joe’s aunt, whose generosity and hospitality made a resonating impression on them both (Maisie); and finally the relative whom Lara was closest to throughout her young adulthood, the grandmother who taught her to sew (Nell). We can only appreciate these names once we grasp the importance of their namesakes. We must not discredit names all together, the story wants to say; there is value in the stories names tell, the people and relationships they reveal.

Names only scratch the surface of the narrative’s questions about the clarity and the authenticity of the stories we tell ourselves. We understand that Lara intends to tell the story differently this time. She will reveal the coda she felt her girls were once too young and immature to comprehend.

And they will agree that she made the right choice. This latter part of the story did need to be held back for a time. Now, “I’m not sorry to know,” Nell tells her mother, after what she thinks is the finale has been revealed. The reader, like the girls, experiences simultaneous relief and grief. We see why Lara had to withhold certain information. We recognize the generosity and compassion in carefully unfolding this epilogue to them now. “Emily knows everything now, and she is done,” Lara tells the reader.

But there are more pages in the book. The story isn’t over just yet. With a page turn from that just-quoted line, we read, “And I am done, except for this.” As she explains later, “There was always going to be a part of the story I didn’t tell Joe or to the girls. What I did was mine alone to do. I tore the page from the calendar and threw it away.”

In the pages leading up to this brief but punch-you-in-the-gut reveal, Lara reiterates how proud her grandmother Nell would have been of Lara for her independence in doing things like traveling on her own: “I took a bus from Port Authority to Boston, then in Boston I found the bus to Belmont and in Belmont I took a cab. This was exactly the sort of thing that would have floored my grandmother: I’d done all of it myself.”

And yet, after a scene of manipulation and control so painful it’s hard to read, Lara makes another decision for herself—one with much broader consequences than interstate travel. This too, she does all on her own: “I still had enough money in my savings account left over from when I made actual money. I didn’t have to call anyone. I didn’t have to ask anyone for permission or help.… I’m here to tell you, I felt nothing but grateful.” Thoughts of Nell are noticeably absent in this recollection. Why, in this act of independence, might her grandmother not have been proud? What’s more, if we’re hearing about this episode now, it’s not as far gone as Lara wants to believe. What is it that compels her to locate a confidante, even in the unknown reader?

“The painful things you were certain you’d never be able to let go? Now you’re not entirely sure they happened,” she says much earlier. Perhaps the story reaches the point beyond what seems to be the end, because Lara needs to remember this part happened, even if she won’t allow her family to hold the memory with her. Something remains, something too difficult to name outright. But it is there. It will not go away.

And so this novel of a story in a story, wrapped up in another story, leads us to ask what stories we tell ourselves. We remember things the way we want to. We retell in the way we wish things would have been. But when we do, we need to see that ultimately we do not spare ourselves as much as we’d like to believe.

Lindsay Schlegel is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in America, Word on Fire, The Windhover, Verily, and more. The co-author of The Road to Hope: Respondingto the Crisis of Addiction, Lindsay is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.