It’s the summer of 2020, just a season into the coronavirus pandemic, and fifty-seven-year old Lara is confined to the cherry farm in rural Michigan she runs with husband Joe. Their three grown-up daughters – Emily, Maisie and Nell – have no option to be at home with them. It’s a situation faced by families the world over.
A lot of people think it’s the end of the world. But Lara doesn’t think that – in fact, she’s never felt like that. Lara seems to be a woman who has never wanted much, who is happy in the moment. She’s actually enjoying the experience of lockdown.
But summers are fleeting and unrepeatable and this summer’s other novelty is the fact that it’s time to share the story of her past – of her long-ago, briefly successful as a career as an actress in a film that takes years to be released and a sudden play, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, in which she stars as the main character. Her appearance in the play at the town of Tom Lake is forever linked to her relationships with her fellow actors – especially her boyfriend, Peter Duke, who went on to have a notable career long after Lara’s ended.
The fact of Lara and Duke’s relationship has haunted her eldest daughter Emily all her life, but this turns out of be just one of the stories everyone knows but nobody talks about – and therefore maybe doesn’t quite understand. During the summer, more truths emerge and need to be confronted, and Lara’s gentle, loving complacency deserts her in the face of it.
For the first time, she sees the swerves her twenty-four-year-old self made – with varying degrees of self-awareness – as close shaves that have, in fact, steered the course of her life. The life-changing moments proved to have happened on days others than those she imbued with significance. By the end of the story, where she is now is not only where she wants to be and where she needs to be but she has understood the journey to reach it afresh.
The novel is described as a ‘meditation’ on themes of love and parenthood, and it is; Lara’s voice is measured and her narrative affords space to chart the routines of harvesting fruit, deciding on meals, recollecting past incidents, running a household. And yet, Tom Lake is spiked with moments of sharp insight and revelation as Lara becomes unblinkered. It’s also imbued with the fear that gripped the world in 2020, the threat to survival, to the future, not only of individuals but of the planet.
Tom Lake is about a play and in a way, reading it feels like watching a piece of theatre: being in a scenario that can never be repeated in exactly the same way. This marvellous, blissful novel – by one of my favourite writers – has an intense immediacy, which perfect suits its theme that there’s no place to live but in the here and now.
Tom Lake is published by Bloomsbury.