There is little, if anything, that I did not appreciate about this book. The setting, the time-frames, the characters, the imagery, the nuanced language, all of it added up to a glorious read for me. I have been a fan of Ann Patchett’s long before reading this one. She has proven her story-telling chops with such bestsellers as Bel Canto and The Dutch House. In Commonwealth she mirrored her own chaotic family, which she also wrote about in her book of essays These Precious Days.
The novel is set on a cherry farm in northern Michigan. If you substituted apples for the cherries, you could imagine yourself in very familiar surroundings. Because of the pandemic, the Nelsons’ three grown daughters have come home and are the only available hands to harvest the cherry crop. As parents Lara and Joe and their daughters Emily, Maisie, and Nell work tirelessly to pick the cherries, they begin to share stories. The girls beg their mother Lara to tell of her youthful summer romance with recently deceased famous actor Peter Duke. The romance took place at a summerstock theatre in Tom Lake, Michigan, when Lara was pursuing an acting career. With buckets hanging from canvas straps around their neck, the women slowly move from tree to tree, clearing the cherries and absorbing the details of their mother’s life before marriage and family. There is something universal in this, a child’s fascination about their parents’ lives as young adults.
As Lara weaves her tale, judiciously editing certain details, she begins to relive a period of her life that defined her future. Her career as an actress was shortlived, highlighted by her pivotal role as Emily in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. As Lara spoon-feeds her story bit by bit to her daughters, she begins to become aware of the enormous impact that period of her life had in shaping her as a person. The summer at Tom Lake began in a rush of rehearsals and afternoon swims, of young lovers and new best friends. But life always sneaks into the fantasy, and soon there were jealousies, drunken rampages and hurt feelings. As a reader, we are privileged with both the story she shares with her daughters and the poignancy of the narrative in her head. Her inside voice reveals how events at Tom Lake led to her marriage to Joe, her life on the farm and even her daughters’ names. I loved watching how things would be revealed; how she wound up with Joe, where Nell’s name came from, how the cherry harvesting was proceeding, how various characters circle back into Lara’s life.
Patchett has received well-deserved praise for this book, which was chosen by Reese Witherspoon for her book of the month club. It’s a very compelling, captivating read, pulling the reader along to follow the plot twists. And it’s a gentle read, the conflict isn’t violent or bloody, no murder or mayhem. I found it gave me a lot to think about, even weeks after finishing. Perhaps because at my age, reflecting on the events of one’s life and the paths one has chosen is an often-enjoyable pastime. “There is no explaining this simple truth about life: you will forget much of it. The painful things you were certain you’d never be able to let go? Now you’re not entirely sure when they happened, while the thrilling parts, the heart-stopping joys, splintered and scattered and became something else.”