When Ann Patchett told her friend Tom Hanks (yes, that Tom Hanks) she was writing a book that takes place in a cherry orchard, he said, “Tell me there are three sisters!” There are indeed three sisters in Tom Lake (Harper, Aug. 1), and quotations from The Cherry Orchard are brandished in a central scene. But Chekhov’s symbol of nature destroyed by carelessness and greed is transformed in Patchett’s tender novel into a place of beauty and comfort, sustained by a family’s determination to maintain their small farm against the odds. The three sisters in the novel are also daughters, who have demanded that their mother, Lara, tell them about her brief career as an actress and her summer-stock romance with now-famous movie star Peter Duke. The family is isolated at home in Michigan by the pandemic in the summer of 2020, and Lara’s recollections mingle with glimpses of their grueling labor harvesting cherries as she tries to convey to her daughters why she walked away from what seems to them a glittering life.

“I picked acting as a profession,” Patchett says, “because it’s impossible for anyone to believe that someone who was having success in acting would say, ‘You know what? I did it, and it was fun, but I’m not really good at it and I don’t want to do this with my life.’ In the same way as her daughters are saying, ‘Anybody would want to be with Peter Duke!’ what she’s saying is, ‘No, you’ve got to pick. Just because everybody thinks you want to be an actress and that being with Peter Duke is the best thing in the world, that’s not the case.’ ”

We see how demanding Duke is in Lara’s account of their affair and also through his relationship with his brother, Sebastian, the steady support his turbulent sibling relies on.  Sebastian was very nearly the novel’s narrator, Patchett reveals. “I could not figure out until the very last minute whether I wanted to write this book from Lara’s point of view or Sebastian’s. Did I want to write the story of Sebastian’s life with Duke or Lara’s summer with Duke? They’re completely different books, one isn’t right and one isn’t better, but I had to make up my mind. The reason I picked Lara is that The Dutch House had a male first-person narrator, and I thought I shouldn’t do that twice.”

The novel she decided to write draws a sharp contrast between charismatic, crazy Duke and Lara’s gentle, supportive husband, Joe. “A huge thing I was thinking about,” Patchett comments, “is that the kind of love I had in my 20s is not the kind of love I would want at 59. I’m much happier with my reliable, loving husband than I was with some of the roller-coaster boyfriends I had when I was young. But how do you explain that to someone young? I think that when Lara gets to really unpacking it, she has revelations—you look back on these relationships and you think, ‘Wow, that really wasn’t very good for me!’ At the time you think, ‘He’s so brilliant, I am unworthy.’ You look back and think, ‘Actually, no: I wasn’t unworthy!’ ”

Lara’s reevaluation of her past while she’s recounting it to her daughters was part of the appeal in writing Tom Lake, Patchett says. “I am always interested in the fact that nobody tells the same story to different people. We all tailor our experience to the listener, and we change the story depending on who we’re telling it to. Having that fact of human nature be central to the novel was an interesting thing to play with. At this point, having written many novels, it’s important to come up with something that I think, ‘All right, I haven’t done this before, this is engaging and a challenge.’ ”

An additional benefit of a long track record, she says with a laugh, is that “having dedicated books to every member of my family and every person I felt an obligation to, I’ve been able to dedicate the last three books to friends.” Tom Lake is dedicated to children’s book author Kate DiCamillo, “who held the lantern high.”  

“Kate was and is a really steadfast friend,” Patchett explains. “She would send me an email every morning saying, ‘I’m going down to the rabbit hole to work, and you’re off to the cherry orchard.’ Then she would email later and say, ‘Are you still out there in the trees? It’s late, I’m out here holding the lantern, come out of the trees.’ She felt like a very big part of the working process.”

Another important source of support was Patchett’s friend Erin Whiting. “She grew up in Michigan on a cherry orchard, went to Interlochen, the arts school there, then started a professional theater company in Traverse City. A big reason I set the book in Michigan—I’m no fool—is that I knew I would have Erin to lean on. I went up there several times, but really it was me asking, ‘OK, what kind of cherries? What would the schedule for a summer theater be?’ That was so helpful.”

In a scene that stands at the emotional center of Tom Lake, Lara tells her daughters about visiting Joe’s family farm for the first time, with Duke and their fellow actor Pallas, on a day off from the nearby summer-stock theater where they are performing Our Town and Joe is the director. “It’s the tipping point in the book,” notes Patchett. “Duke and Pallas both say, ‘When I was a kid, I dreamed I’d be in this house and this life.’ Lara transitions into her own future on that day. She will leave acting and go to the farm, and Duke won’t even though he desperately wants that life too. That’s what she’s saying to her daughters, over and over: ‘Are you serious? Did you think I wouldn’t take this?’ This is the moment when her daughters see through her eyes for the first time. The farm is everything, and Duke is going to be left behind in a world everyone thinks is better, but it’s not; it kills him.”

Not that life on a cherry orchard is easy. The pandemic has Lara’s family picking fruit without any of the usual seasonal help, falling into bed exhausted every night. The knowledge that climate change is making farming harder every year prompts the eldest daughter and her fiancé to announce that they will not have children. But these are not things the family talks about much, nor does Lara comment explicitly on the racism that prevents her ambitious friend Pallas from getting the break Duke does. “That’s how I live my life, and I think that’s how most people live their lives,” Patchett says of her indirect treatment of social issues. “Pandemic, racism, climate change, they’re always there and they’re a huge part of being alive in the world, but they don’t define your day. You’re home with your family, and what you’re talking about is the day in front of you and the work at hand, the joys and sorrows of the family. We have such different expectations for novels than for our lives, and I want to write novels that operate more like our lives. Not because I think that’s what is right, but because that’s the way I write.”

Wendy Smith is a contributing editor at The American Scholar and the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.