51 pages 1 hour read

Ann Patchett

Tom Lake

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2023

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Tom Lake, a New York Times bestseller, is Ann Patchett’s 13th novel, published in 2023 by Harper. Patchett’s writing career began when she was still in college, and spans both fiction and nonfiction. She gained widespread recognition and acclaim with the publication of her fourth novel Bel Canto in 2001, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize, and was adapted into a film, starring Julianne Moore, in 2018. In 2012, Patchett appeared on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Her work is known for its compelling representation of small group dynamics, and often focuses on family, using a character-driven approach that quietly probes questions of love, family, and mortality. Patchett is the owner of Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville.

This study guide refers to the 2023 Harper e-book edition.

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of alcohol addiction and misuse.

Plot Summary

Tom Lake is set in 2020, the first year of the COVID pandemic. Lara Nelson, her husband, Joe, and their daughters, Emily, Maisie, and Nell, retreat to isolation on the family farm in northern Michigan, where they work to bring in the first harvest of their cherry orchard. Because of the pandemic, over half of their seasonal workers have not returned that year, and the family puts in long hours hand-picking the “sweets,” cherries that are too fragile to freeze for shipping and so can only be sold fresh.

While Lara and her daughters pick cherries in neighboring trees, she tells them the story of the summer she dated Peter Duke, a famous movie star who has recently died. Lara had a brief career as an actor that began in high school when she was cast as Emily in a community theater production of Our Town. She reprised the role in college, and was spotted by a movie director, who took her to Los Angeles to appear in his latest movie. The movie was filmed, but its release was delayed, and after living and working in LA for a few years, Lara returned home to New Hampshire.

When she auditioned for Emily for a Broadway production of Our Town, Lara didn’t get the part, but instead was offered the opportunity to play the same role at Tom Lake, a summer stock theater in Michigan. As soon as she arrived, Lara met and fell in love with Peter Duke—at that time a young, unknown actor. Their summer romance was whirlwind and intense, but came to an end when Lara was injured and forced to step down from the role of Emily. Her understudy, Pallace, who was dating Sebastian, Duke’s brother, stepped into her role, and she and Duke began sleeping together as well. Duke disappeared from Lara’s life after her injury. Before their relationship ended, however, Lara, Duke, Sebastian, and Pallace visited the family farm of Joe Nelson, their director.

Several years later, Lara met Joe Nelson again, and they fell in love. They both left theater behind and took over his family farm. Besides his one visit to the farm when Lara’s daughters were young, they never heard from Duke again.

As Lara finishes her story, the family finishes the cherry harvest. Lara remembers seeing Duke once more. A few years after their relationship ended, Duke called her from a residential facility in Boston, where he was working to overcome his alcohol addiction. He asked her to visit, and she took the bus to see him. They had sex in a bathroom, and then she left, running into Sebastian, who came to visit Duke, on the way out. Six weeks later, Lara realized she was pregnant and had an abortion. She keeps this story to herself.

During the course of the year, her family’s life goes on. Maisie, who is in veterinary school, begins treating the neighbors’ animals. Emily and her boyfriend, Benny, announce that they are getting married. Only Nell, who is an actor, struggles with the isolation of the pandemic. When Emily tells the family that, because of climate change and the pandemic, she has decided not to have children, it is a blow to Joe and Lara, who have imagined passing the farm down.

However, at the end of the novel, their family expands in an unexpected way. Sebastian visits the farm with Duke’s ashes, and Lara feels their old friendship rekindle immediately. Sebastian reveals that, for years after that first visit, Duke tried to buy the farm. Finally, he agreed to pay an exorbitant price, enough for them to retire on, for a plot in their family cemetery. Lara and Joe are shocked, but on reflection, it seems appropriate. They bury Duke on the family farm and Lara decides to offer Sebastian a place there, when his time comes, as well.