Monday, September 11, 2023

Tom Lake: Life Lived Under the Stars

Ann Patchett's new novel Tom Lake was published by Harper in August 2023. (Photo: Emily Doriot)

“There are the stars – doing their old, old criss-cross in the skies. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk – or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself.”

                                                                                         –  Stage Manager, Our Town, Act Three

When I think of Ann Patchett’s literary virtues, the one that stands out is her gift for storytelling. She has the jigsaw-puzzle magic for putting together plots that we associate with the nineteenth-century writers (especially, of course, Dickens). You never know where you’re going to wind up in a Patchett novel, but when you get there you think, “Aha! Of course.” By time she’s worked her final twist – she has a genius for devising endings – the reader is so deeply emotionally invested in the fates of the characters that, in my experience, closing the book takes an act of will. I’ve read almost all of Patchett’s novels (as well as Truth and Beauty, her heartbreaking account of her friendship with the late writer Lucy Grealy), and the only one that has ever felt rigged to me is her 2021 The Dutch House. I just didn’t believe in the actions of the characters – the mother who wanders away from her children for decades, the son who forces himself to attend law school, the daughter who is so fixated on the loss of her childhood home that she drags her brother back there over and over again to look at it from the perspective of an exiled voyeur. The book felt rigged, though she managed to produce her usual exquisite finish. In her new novel, Tom Lake (Harper, 2023), not a single moment feels less than absolutely authentic.

In Tom Lake Patchett builds on Thornton Wilder’s great 1938 play Our Town, and the inspiration feels exactly right, given the plain-spoken elegance that is a shared element of their two styles. It’s a quality that I love in other American writers, too, like Willa Cather, James Agee and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. But of course what mostly draws Patchett to Our Town is Wilder's project: poeticizing the everyday. The frame of Patchett’s novel is set on a cherry farm in northern Michigan where the protagonist and narrator, Lara, her husband and their three grown daughters, Emily, Maisie and Nell, have hunkered down to wait out the pandemic. The girls – especially Nell, who wants to be an actress – have begged their mother to tell them the story of her romance, of which they know only bits and pieces, when she was in her mid-twenties, with Duke, a handsome, charismatic and eventually famous young actor she met when she was brought in as a last-minute replacement for the actress playing Emily in a summer-stock production of Wilder’s play in small-town Michigan. Lara had already played the role twice, first in a community-theatre edition when she was in high school. She had signed up only to help with try-outs, but most of the auditioners were awful, and though she’d never performed herself, she had an instinct for recognizing their pushing inauthenticity, and for understanding that Wilder calls for a kind of deep simplicity. On the spur of the moment, and in protest against all the wrongheaded acting she’s been watching for agonizing hours, she puts her own name down on the list and gets the part, one might say by embodying it. She becomes an actress and lands an important supporting part in a film. But it takes a couple of years to be released, and while she’s waiting it out in L.A., mostly shooting commercials, her agent lands her an audition for the 1987 Broadway revival of Our Town directed by Gregory Mosher. She doesn’t get it – Penelope Ann Miller does, opposite Eric Stoltz (it was a magnificent mounting of the play, televised the following year), though Patchett doesn’t mention any of these names, just that of Spalding Gray, who played the Stage Manager. But Lara’s agent comes up with a sort of consolation prize in the form of the summer-stock version. Duke, who is playing Emily’s father, Editor Webb – trust Patchett not to make the obvious choice and have him play George – is the first member of the company she meets; they strike an immediate spark, and he moves into her bed. The other stipulation in her contract is that she act opposite him in Sam Shepard’s hothouse tale of romantic passion between two half-siblings, Fool for Love. (Lara turns out to be as miscast in the Shepard as she is ideal for Emily.)

At first the tale of Lara’s theatrical past is so appealing that the constant return to the farm feels like an intrusion; like her daughters, the reader longs to get back to the story she’s recounting. But as we learn more about her girls the present-day narrative becomes more and more compelling. Not just stage-struck Nell, champing at the bit to get out of rural Michigan, but also Maisie the veterinary student and especially complicated Emily, the eldest, who convinced herself in her rebellious, tempest-tossed adolescence that Duke was her real father but has now settled down into a devoted farm woman, preparing with her lifelong love, Benny, the boy from the next property over, to merge their land and carry on their parents’ legacy. Patchett is keeping faith with Wilder: she wants us to see the depth of these human beings who have made the choice to lead lives steeped in old-world traditions, to understand that those lives are anything but simple – not just because of climate change, which makes a potent entrance into the story at one point, but also because there’s no such thing as a simple human life. Meanwhile the threads that keep transporting us back to Lara’s youth become stronger and more entangled. It’s the gifted, steady, unassuming director of the summer-stock production of Our Town who introduces Lara to the farm where she winds up making her life. It belongs to his aunt and uncle and he helps them out whenever he can. He extends an invitation to Lara to visit, and she and Duke, Duke’s brother Sebastian and his girlfriend Pallace, who is Lara’s best friend in the company and her understudy, take a break from their schedule to spend a transcendently beautiful day there.

The graveyard scene from the original Broadway production of Our Town, with Frank Craven as the Stage Manager, Martha Scott as Emily and John Craven as George.

I would say that the Thornton Wilder undercurrent rises to the surface in a passage that also illuminates the careful interlacing of past and present. It occurs in more or less the exact center of the novel, when Patchett italicizes an inner monologue of Lara’s addressed to the long-dead woman whose place she is now occupying in the kitchen of the cherry farm.

Maisie, look, the white canisters are still on the sink, the whole row of them including coffee and rice. I broke the sugar the year we moved into the house. My hands were wet when I picked it up and it slipped right through and smashed on the floor. I stood there crying and crying, until Joe told me it was just a canister and it didn’t matter. But they were yours. Everything was yours. I’d forgotten how small the kitchen was before we pushed out the back wall. You would have loved it the way it is now. I can stand at the sink and keep an eye out for Joe and make dinner and talk to the girls. There’s so much space. The first day I came to the house the kitchen was so small and we were all crowded in together. Look how beautiful we all were, Maisie. Can you believe it? Look how young.

Lovers of Our Town will see Patchett’s source right away: the unforgettable scene at the end of act three where the Stage Manager leads Emily from the graveyard back to the morning of her twelfth birthday and, in a tone of wonder mixed with grief at the vanished past, she comments on the physical details of the town and her childhood home that she’s forgotten, as well as her parents’ faces (“I can’t bear it. They’re so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old?”). But Patchett replaces grief with gratitude, anticipating Emily’s famous farewell to the world: “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you!,” which Wilder’s stage directions want her to speak as “she flings her arms wide in an ecstasy of realization.” This musing of Lara’s is also the moment when we discover the origin of Lara’s middle daughter’s name – and it’s the only time in this review that I will give away any of the book’s secrets. It’s important to betray one to show how Patchett is working in Tom Lake, and I deem it sufficiently minor that I hope I may be forgiven.

The only characters in Our Town whom Patchett mentions by name are Emily and George, the Webb and Gibbs parents, and the Stage Manager. But also embedded in Tom Lake is an allusion to Emily’s kid brother Wally, who dies of a ruptured appendix on a Boy Scout trip between the second and third acts. I was puzzled by the fact that Lara’s memories of neither her community-theatre production of the play nor the summer-stock show that changed her life forever include a reference to the actor who played Simon Stimson, the alcoholic church organist who takes his own life: his misery and continued bitterness beyond the grave are necessary for Wilder’s vision of humanity, which must include some glimpse of lives deprived of happiness as well as ordinary lives that mix the sorrow with the joy. It’s only near the end of the book that we see, through the fate of one of the characters, what Patchett has done with Simon. That mixture, which she symbolizes with the cherry harvest (“There are always four or five days when picking the last of the sweet cherries overlaps with the start of shaking the tart cherries”), is at the heart of her novel. Tom Lake finishes up with its own version of Wilder’s graveyard scene, but about fifty pages earlier we read: “It’s not that I’m unaware of the suffering and the soon-to-be-more suffering in the world, it’s that I know the suffering exists beside wet grass and a bright blue sky recently scrubbed by the rain.” We may recall the exchange, moments before the final curtain of Our Town, when Simon rants that being alive is “to move around in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those – of those about you,” and Mrs. Gibbs protests, “That ain’t the whole truth and you know it, Simon Stimson” and then draws Emily’s attention to a star in the sky. Patchett goes on:

The beauty and the suffering are equally true. Our Town taught me that. I had memorized the lesson before I understood what they meant. No matter how many years ago I’d stopped playing Emily, she is still here. All of Grover’s Corners is in me.

This is, I think, a great novel.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies

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