Tom Lake Summary, Characters and Themes

Tom Lake is a novel by Ann Patchett set during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Lara, a mother of three adult daughters, recounts her past romance with a famous actor to her daughters while they isolate at the family orchard. As Lara delves into her memories of young love and summer theater at Tom Lake, her daughters reflect on their own lives and relationships. The novel explores themes of family, love, memory, and the passage of time.


In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic grips the world, Lara Nelson, her husband Joe, and their three adult daughters—Emily, Maisie, and Nell—find themselves sequestered on their family farm in northern Michigan. 

Their annual cherry harvest is underway, but with pandemic-related labor shortages, the family must undertake the grueling task of hand-picking the delicate “sweets” themselves.

To pass the time while working, Lara recounts the tale of her summer romance with Peter Duke, a renowned movie star who recently passed away. As a young woman, Lara had a budding acting career, beginning with community theater and a brief stint in Los Angeles. 

One fateful summer, she landed a role at Tom Lake, a summer stock theater in Michigan, where she crossed paths with Peter Duke, then an unknown aspiring actor.

Their passionate affair unfolded amidst the backdrop of rehearsals and performances, but it was cut short when Lara sustained an injury, leading her understudy, Pallace, to take over her role. Pallace, involved with Duke’s brother Sebastian, also became entangled with Duke himself, adding complexity to the situation. 

After her injury, Lara lost touch with Duke and eventually left the world of theater behind.

Years later, Lara reconnected with Joe Nelson, the director from Tom Lake, and they embarked on a life together, settling on his family farm. Duke remained a distant memory, resurfacing only once for a brief visit when Lara’s daughters were young.

As Lara concludes her story, the cherry harvest draws to a close, and she recalls another encounter with Duke. 

Years after their affair, he contacted her from a rehabilitation facility where he was battling alcoholism. Lara visited him, and they shared an intimate moment before she departed, only to cross paths with Sebastian, who was also visiting Duke. 

Six weeks later, Lara discovered she was pregnant and chose to have an abortion, a secret she kept from her family.

Life on the farm continues, with each daughter facing their own challenges and triumphs. 

Maisie, a veterinary student, attends to the animals of their neighbors, while Emily and her boyfriend Benny announce their engagement. Nell, an actress, grapples with the isolation of the pandemic. 

When Emily reveals her decision not to have children due to climate change concerns, it deeply affects Joe and Lara, who had envisioned their legacy continuing through future generations.

However, an unexpected twist occurs when Sebastian arrives at the farm, bearing Duke’s ashes. Their old friendship reignites, and Sebastian reveals that Duke had been attempting to purchase the farm for years. 

Ultimately, he agreed to an exorbitant sum, securing a plot in the family cemetery. The Nelsons are surprised but find it fitting. 

They bury Duke on the farm, and Lara extends an offer to Sebastian, promising him a place beside Duke when his time comes.

Tom Lake Summary


Lara Nelson

Lara is the protagonist and narrator of the novel. 

A former actress, she gave up her promising career to marry Joe and raise their family on the cherry orchard. Lara is a complex character, harboring secrets from her past, notably her affair with Peter Duke and the subsequent abortion. 

She is a devoted mother, sharing her life story with her daughters, yet also grappling with the choices she made in her youth. 

Lara’s character evolves as she reflects on her past and comes to terms with her decisions, ultimately finding peace in her present life.

Joe Nelson

Joe is Lara’s husband and the owner of the cherry orchard. 

He is a hardworking and practical man, dedicated to his family and their farm. Joe’s character is somewhat reserved, as he remains in the background for much of the novel. 

However, his love for Lara and their daughters is evident, and his steady presence provides a sense of stability amidst the family’s emotional turmoil.

Emily Nelson

Emily is Lara and Joe’s eldest daughter, poised to inherit the family farm. She is a pragmatic and responsible young woman, committed to the orchard and its future. 

Emily’s decision not to have children due to concerns about climate change and the pandemic adds a layer of complexity to her character, highlighting the challenges faced by her generation.

Maisie Nelson

Maisie is the middle daughter, studying to become a veterinarian. 

She is a compassionate and caring individual, drawn to helping animals and people alike. 

Maisie’s burgeoning relationship with a local doctor adds a touch of romance to the novel, while her dedication to her studies showcases her ambition and drive.

Nell Nelson

Nell is the youngest daughter, an aspiring actress navigating the uncertain landscape of her chosen profession. She is the most affected by the pandemic’s isolation, struggling to find purpose and connection. 

Nell’s character embodies the anxieties and aspirations of young artists, as she searches for her place in a changing world.

Peter Duke

Peter Duke is a famous actor and Lara’s former lover. 

He is portrayed as a charismatic but troubled figure, battling addiction and personal demons. 

Duke’s presence looms large over the novel, even after his death, as Lara and her daughters grapple with the impact he had on their lives. 

His character serves as a catalyst for self-reflection and growth, prompting Lara to confront her past and make peace with her choices.


The Enduring Power of Memory

Memory serves as a central theme in “Tom Lake,” shaping the characters’ lives and relationships. 

Lara’s recollection of her summer romance with Peter Duke becomes a shared experience with her daughters, bridging the gap between their past and present. 

The narrative structure, moving between the present day on the cherry farm and Lara’s memories of Tom Lake, highlights the fluidity and interconnectedness of time. Memories are not static but evolve and take on new meanings as individuals mature and circumstances change. 

The novel suggests that memories, whether joyful or painful, are an integral part of the human experience, shaping our identities and influencing our choices.

The Complexity of Family Relationships

Family dynamics play a crucial role in “Tom Lake,” exploring the intricate bonds between parents and children, siblings, and spouses. 

The Nelson family’s isolation on the farm during the pandemic intensifies their interactions and forces them to confront unspoken truths and unresolved issues. Lara’s decision to share her past with her daughters fosters a deeper understanding and connection between them. 

The novel delves into the complexities of parental love, the challenges of communication, and the enduring impact of family secrets. 

The characters’ individual journeys of self-discovery are interwoven with their relationships, highlighting the profound influence that family has on personal growth and happiness.

The Inevitability of Change and Loss

“Tom Lake” explores the transient nature of life, emphasizing the inevitability of change and loss. Lara’s reminiscence of her youthful romance with Peter Duke serves as a poignant reminder of the fleeting nature of youth and the passage of time. 

The cherry orchard, with its annual cycle of growth, harvest, and dormancy, symbolizes the natural rhythm of life and the continuous cycle of renewal and decay. The novel acknowledges the pain and grief associated with loss, whether it be the loss of loved ones, dreams, or opportunities. 

However, it also suggests that change can lead to new beginnings and unexpected paths. 

The characters’ resilience in the face of adversity highlights the importance of adapting to life’s uncertainties and finding meaning in the present moment.

The Interplay of Illusion and Reality

The world of theater, with its emphasis on performance and artifice, serves as a metaphor for the broader theme of illusion versus reality in “Tom Lake.” 

Lara’s experiences as an actress blur the lines between her stage persona and her true self, raising questions about authenticity and the masks we wear in different social contexts. 

The novel suggests that life itself can be seen as a stage, with individuals playing various roles and adapting their behavior to meet societal expectations. However, it also emphasizes the importance of recognizing and embracing one’s true identity, even if it means challenging societal norms or confronting personal demons. 

The characters’ journeys towards self-acceptance and authenticity highlight the transformative power of recognizing and embracing the complexities of the human experience.