Tom Lake Book Club Questions & Character List

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett was my book club’s pick last month, and I really enjoyed it – it’s a great book for discussion! If your book club is reading Tom Lake next, you’ll find a helpful guide below with a synopsis, character list, and discussion-sparking book club questions for Tom Lake.

Tom Lake hardcover book

What is Tom Lake about?

Tom Lake is a literary fiction novel that centers around a woman, her family, and the past events that shaped the person she is today.

Tom Lake book cover

At their family cherry orchard in Michigan (during the pandemic in the summer of 2020), a mother tells her three daughters about her past romance with a famous actor – revealing truths that make them question everything they thought they knew about their mother and themselves.

This poignant story switches from the past to the present, giving us a glimpse into the life of a middle-aged mother (Lara) who was once a young actress.

From her first experience in a high school play – Thornton Wilder’s Our Town – to the moment she is discovered and flown out to Hollywood, to her experience at ‘Tom Lake’, a summer theater town. It was here that she met Peter Duke, an enigmatic actor who she is drawn to.

They’re both at a turning point in their careers, starring in a production of Our Town while waiting for their big break. But things don’t quite go as planned for one of them.

I really enjoyed reading this story. It’s full of quietly beautiful, detailed writing that you just want to savor. You can truly sink into the story and feel like you’re living another life.

(Plus, the audiobook is read by Meryl Streep, which is another huge bonus!).

This is on my list of the best seasonal summer book club books. Not in a book club yet? Here are my best tips for how to start a book club you’ll love!

Character List

Need a refresher on the significant characters in Tom Lake? I’ve got you covered:

  • Lara Kenison/Nelson: the protagonist of the story. A mother of three who was an actress earlier in life.
  • Emily Nelson: Lara’s eldest daughter, who had an obsession with Peter Duke as a child and intends to take over the family cherry farm when her father retires.
  • Maisie Nelson: Lara’s middle daughter, training to be a veterinarian.
  • Nell Nelson: Lara’s youngest daughter, an aspiring actress.
  • Joe Nelson: Lara’s husband. Owner of the cherry farm and previous theater/stage director.
  • Peter Duke: Lara’s former boyfriend who became a famous actor.
  • Sebastian Duke: Peter Duke’s brother (also a tennis instructor).
  • Pallace: Lara’s understudy at Tom Lake (also a dancer).
  • Albert Long (a.k.a Uncle Wallace): a famous actor somewhat past his prime who plays the Stage Manager – an important role in Our Town – at Tom Lake.
  • Benny Holzapfel: the family’s neighbor at the cherry orchard (also Emily’s boyfriend).
  • Bill Ripley: the director who discovers Lara and jumpstarts her acting career.
Tom Lake hardcover book sitting on a wooden table with a bright orange drink in a glass beside it

Tom Lake Book Club Questions

Now, here are some book club questions to help spark your discussion!

Here are more discussion-worthy book club questions (for any book), plus the best book club books for 2024! You can also find my picks for the best 2023 book club books here.

  • What would you rate this book out of 5 stars? Would you recommend it to a friend?
  • Did you read a physical/ebook copy of the book, or listen to the audiobook read by Meryl Streep? Which format do you think is best?
  • Why do you think the author chose to set this book in 2020, during the pandemic?
  • Did you like the format/way this story was told (a story within a story/multiple timelines)?
  • How would you feel about telling a personal or romantic story like this to your child (or parent)?
  • How did you feel about the way the daughters would talk about Peter Duke despite their own father still being around?
  • What was your first impression of Peter Duke? Would you have been intrigued by him, or not?
  • What do you think about the fictional town of Tom Lake and the summer theater? Is it somewhere you’d want to visit or no?
  • Which of the different settings was your favorite? Have you been to any of the places mentioned? (Note: Tom Lake itself is a fictional town)
  • Have you ever performed in a play (or would you consider it)? Which play?
  • How did this story portray the theme of fame? Would you ever want to be famous? What about date someone famous?
  • Do you enjoy the theater? Have you ever been to a play, or is there a specific play you’d like to see?
  • If you were the main character telling your children your life story, how much would you tell and how much would you leave out?
  • Would you ever want to live on or own a farm, like the main character? Why or why not? What type of farm would you want?
  • Why do you think Emily (Lara’s daughter) was so obsessed with the idea of Peter Duke being her father?
  • How did you feel about the way Peter Duke and Pallace treated Lara after she was injured?
  • Do you feel like Lara’s injury was a blessing in disguise? Why or why not?
  • Were there any parts of Lara’s story that surprised you? Anything you related to?
  • Which character did you relate to the most? Why?

That’s it! I hope you found this Tom Lake book club guide helpful. 🙂 Have you read Tom Lake? What did you think?

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