Ann Patchett’s “Tom Lake” may very well be the first pandemic novel that anyone actually likes. Set among the cherry trees of northern Michigan in the summer of 2020, narrator and protagonist Lara tells her three 20-something-aged daughters a story of the time she dated a movie star named Peter Duke — while avoiding any hint of cringe. Whether it’s Patchett’s ever-prodigious touch or the story’s determined wholesomeness, her ninth novel is reflective and mellow, though by no means prudish — it recounts a hot summer fling, after all. Most of all, it’s rich with the kind of devastatingly real depictions of humanity that readers have come to expect from Patchett.
While in the present day, Lara and her family deal with the daily hard work of the cherry farm (short a few hands because of the pandemic), the young, 24-year-old Lara in her story-within-a-story has an irritatingly perfect life. Discovered by a producer at a high school production of “Our Town,” she goes on to star in a movie, and then to perform in “Our Town” again during summer stock at the eponymous Tom Lake. It’s there that she meets Duke, a then-unknown actor who sweeps her off her feet within the first hour. It’s one of those loves that flares bright but short, and while it yanks the reader along in whirlwind fashion, the mature Lara and her family are the ones who provide the novel’s layers of reflective insight.