Embracing Optimism and Hope
In Tom Lake, Ann Patchett explores the optimistic persistence of young love.
Aug 1, 2023
Years and years ago I had an idea to write a novel about a woman who, when looking back over her life, realized that her happiest moment had been playing Emily in “Our Town.” “Our Town” has always been a touchstone for me. I have no idea how many times I’ve read it. I once invited a group of neighbors over to do a cold read of the play in our living room. Everyone had a great time. I didn’t know where this idea for a novel was going (probably nowhere) but I kept it in the back of my head—Emily, someone playing Emily. Then when I was on tour for The Dutch House, I spent a couple nights at the home of my friend Katrina Kenison, who lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire. One morning we were walking through the woods near her house and she asked me what I was going to write next. I don’t usually talk about vague ideas, but being in New Hampshire with my friend changed that. “Our Town” is set in New Hampshire. I told her I’d been thinking about Emily and high school. Katrina stopped and stared at me in disbelief. She said she’d always wanted to play Emily in high school, but she’d been cast as Rebecca Gibbs instead because she was small. She then fell madly in love with the boy playing George Gibbs, which meant she was in love with her on-stage brother. By the time we got back to the house, the plot for an entirely different novel was clicking into place. I was thinking about what makes us happy at one point in our life, and how that usually isn’t the thing that makes us happy later on. Tom Lake is largely about happiness, and about how, despite all the suffering and fear in the world, there is still plenty to love on any given day. The pandemic was (is) a terrible thing, and yet so many people I know would whisper quietly that they loved being home, loved being with their family, loved feeling like they didn’t have to race around all the time. This is a novel that acknowledges what’s going wrong in the world, while also acknowledging that there is enormous beauty in life. I’ve long been told I’m naive, foolishly optimistic. I’ve been told my books are fairytales. But I’ve seen many more up close examples of kindness in my life than I have horror. Besides, horror is well represented in the world. It doesn’t need me to speak up on its behalf. Lara tells her daughters that if they look in one direction they’ll see despair, and if they look in the other direction, they’ll see the explosive beauty of cherry trees in bloom. Both things are true.