Tom Lake Book Club Questions & Guide

If your book club enjoys character-driven literary fiction with great discussion opportunities, we recommend Tom Lake by Ann Patchett. This novel embraces Patchett’s love of the play “Our Town” and delves into relationships between mothers and daughters as well as significant others.

Beyond this point, this post contains spoilers, as it is intended for those who have already finished reading the book.

Book Club Discussion Guide – Online & Printable Versions

Online Version

The post below includes everything you need to host or participate in a successful book club for Tom Lake. From discussion questions and a character list to food and cocktail ideas, we’ll help you put together a wonderful gathering.

Printable Version

We also have an optional printable Tom Lake book club kit to take your meeting to the next level. The fully customized version of the book club guide is designed for printing and includes the following pages:

  • A Character List
  • Book Club Discussion Questions
  • Quotes from the Book
  • Icebreaker Ideas & Games Themed to the Book (with printable game cards)
  • Printable Bookmarks for All Your Members 
  • Bonus Contextual Information about “Our Town” & Summer Stock Theaters
  • Themed Food & Drink Menu Ideas
  • Custom Designed Journal Page to Record Book Club Meeting Details
  • Themed Notes Page
  • A List of Additional Book Club Resources
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Etsy purchases help The Book Girls continue to do what we do. However, there is no pressure to purchase; you’re always welcome to use any of the resources below for free!

Book Club Discussion Questions for Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

In addition to the Tom Lake discussion questions below, we have a resource of 50 book club questions that work for any book. That post also provides tips for creating your own book club questions.

Read through these questions before your meeting and select your favorites so you can prioritize them. Most clubs won’t have time for every question, so start with those that you are most excited to discuss.

  1. How familiar were you with “Our Town” before reading Tom Lake? Do you think this impacted how you felt about the novel?
  2. On page 3 during the local Our Town auditions, Lara thinks, “If Cheryl had always wanted to be an actress, I didn’t think I could ever go to the grocery store again.” Discuss whether this was a perceptive or childish thought about adults and unfulfilled dreams.
  3. Lara’s middle daughter is the same age Lara was the summer she spent at Tom Lake. Do you think this helped her daughters relate to their mom in a new way?
  4. Until she met Pallace, Lara hadn’t been close friends with anyone who wasn’t white. She mentions that the summer stock cast at Tom Lake is more diverse than both her hometown and Hollywood. Discuss why you think that was the case.
  5. As you read about Duke’s career as a movie star, did any real celebrities come to mind? Who should play Duke if Tom Lake was made into a movie? What about the rest of the cast?
  6. The ‘present-day’ timeline of Tom Lake takes place during the height of the COVID pandemic when so many families were pulled together or kept apart. Is this the first book you’ve read that included COVID as part of the storyline?
  7. After Uncle Wallace’s episode, Lara is upset that she didn’t do more when he was suffering on stage with her on his final night. Duke tells her that she’d be wise to learn that “you can’t save them that won’t save themselves.” Do you agree?
  8. “I wanted to have a thought, an action, a memory that I hadn’t run past anyone. I want to see a little bit of the movie by myself.“ In an age of constant communication, have you ever related to Lara’s thoughts as she snuck through the orchard to watch the movie at the Ott’s alone?
  9. As she shares her story, Lara thinks, “I want them to think I was better than I was, and I want to tell them the truth in case the truth will be useful. Those two desires do not neatly coexist, but this is where we are in the story.” Discuss the vulnerability required to help others learn from your actions.
  10. Lara lets us, as readers, know a bit more than her daughters along the way but also keeps some surprises for us to learn alongside them. Did anyone expect her husband, Joe, and her director, Nelson, to be the same person?
  11. There are aspects of the story that the daughters would know, but Ann Patchett keeps from us. It isn’t until page 253 that she confirms Peter Duke is dead. Was this a surprise? A bit later, we find out how recently he has passed. Did you expect him to survive to be 60?
  12. Lara says that the present is both an unparalleled disaster (the pandemic) and the happiest time of her life as she has all three daughters home. Each person experienced the pandemic in a different way, with their lows being different depths as so many lost their nearest and dearest. Amidst the hard times, did you have any unexpected silver linings like Lara?
  13. In 1997, Duke returns to the orchard and shares that it’s been the place that made him the happiest to think about since the single day he visited a decade earlier. Is there anywhere that you visit again and again or dream of visiting again?
  14. Do you agree with Lara’s decision to keep private her visit to Duke at the mental hospital, and the ramifications of that visit?
  15. In a PBS NewsHour interview with Jeffrey Brown, Ann Patchett said: “[Lara]’s not going to tell her daughters the whole story, but nobody ever tells anybody the whole story. I mean, we all edit our stories based on our audience. I’m going to tell a story to my husband one way, to my best friend one way, to you one way. It’s not that you’re lying. It’s just that you shape your story to fit your audience.“ Discuss how we all edit our own stories.
  16. Have you ever been in a play or musical? Share your experiences.

List of Characters in Tom Lake

1980s Timeline

  • Lara – High school student who was greatly moved the first time she saw “Our Town” and was cast as Emily after an impulsive audition. She went on to be Emily at Tom Lake and was cast in one movie. Originally spelled her name as Laura.
  • Veronica – Laura’s best friend in school
  • Bill Ripley – Talent Scout & Lara’s Agent
  • Peter Duke – First actor Lara meets at Tom Lake and her first love. He goes on to be a famous movie star.
  • Pallace – Lara’s closest friend at Tom Lake. She’s also a dancer & understudy for the role of Emily
  • Sebastian – Duke’s brother & tennis star, AKA Saint Sebastian
  • Uncle Wallace/Albert Long – Castmate suffering from alcoholism

2020s Timeline

  • Joe – Lara’s husband & the 6th generation Nelson to own the farm & cherry orchard. Also known as Nelson in the 80s timeline
  • Emily – Lara & Joe’s oldest daughter (26) who will take over the farm as the 7th generation
  • Maisie – Lara & Joe’s middle daughter (24) who is in veterinary school
  • Nell – Lara & Joe’s middle daughter (22) who is an actress
  • Benny Hopzapfel – Emily’s fiancé

Tom Lake Book Club Menu Ideas – Food & Drinks

In honor of the Nelson family’s cherry harvest, consider a menu that features cherries in each course.


Begin with Balsamic Cherry Crostini. Layer sourdough or French bread crostini with softened goat cheese and a cherry balsamic reduction. Best of all, when cherries aren’t in season, this appetizer works just as well with frozen cherries. Get the full recipe from our friend over at Savory Experiments.

Balsamic Cherry Crostini image shared with permission from

Main Course

Make cherries the star of dinner by serving a pork loin or chicken with a cherry wine sauce. Or if you prefer a more subtle touch of cherries in your main course, consider adding cherries to a Waldorf salad or a farro salad. A cherry vinegarette also pairs perfectly with a simple arugula salad.


A classic cherry pie seems like an obvious choice, but there are many other crowd-pleasing cherry dessert options ranging from peach cherry cobbler to cherry poke cake. Our friend Jessica at Savory Experiments has dozens of delicious cherry dessert recipes.


If your book club enjoys sweet wines, Oliver Winery makes a Cherry Moscato with the cutest label.

For a more traditional wine selection, Dreaming Tree Wines, a collaboration between musician Dave Matthews and winemaker Grayson Stewart, features trees on the labels that evoke the Nelson family orchard. Choose from Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Rose, or Crush, a red blend.

Tom Lake book & wine bottles and a bowl of cherries


Keep it simple with a bottle of ready-to-serve black cherry margaritas (1800 Tequila makes a highly-rated option).

If you want to mix up your own cocktail, choose a recipe that features Ginja. This Portuguese sour cherry liqueur should be available at your local liquor store. It’s also delicious to sip straight over ice.

Non-Alcoholic Options

Make a twist on a classic Shirley Temple. Start with Sprite and add a spoonful of juice from a jar of Maraschino cherries, a wedge of lime, and as many cherries as you’d like.

Alternatively, Southern Breezes sells pre-sweetened tea bags for a Sweet Cherry Cold Brew.

Tom Lake Book Club Decor Ideas

If you love to decorate to match the theme of the book, you’re in luck! We found the absolute cutest cherry garland that will make your guests feel like they’ve been transported to the Three Sisters Orchard! And this set of cherry paper plates and napkins will allow you to enjoy hosting your book club without having to spend the evening doing dishes.

Quotes from Tom Lake

We compiled a list of our favorite quotes from Tom Lake, which make great talking points as part of a book club discussion. Be sure to jot down any quotes you highlighted along the way, as well.

You can read all of the quotes below, or if you prefer a printable version, the quotes are also included in our downloadable, custom book club kit for Tom Lake. The kit also includes printable bookmarks featuring a quote from the novel.

“Sometimes that’s where the diamonds are.” – Mr. Martin instructing Veronica & Laura not to make anyone feel embarrassed for having less experience at the local performance audition.

“Every Stage Manager [audition] came with an unintended lesson: clarity, intention, simplicity. They were teaching me. “

“It wasn’t that I wanted to be an actress, it was that I knew I could do a better job.”

“The farm is either the very paradise of Eden or a crushing burden of disappointment and despair manifested in fruit, depending on the day. “

“If this was work, then I was made for it.”

“It’s terrifying,” she says quietly, and now I see tears in her eyes. “The idea that in order to get to do this thing you really, really want, you might be told you have to do the exact thing you’d never want to do.”

“For so many years I have not kissed another soul, and there is a deep and abiding comfort in this.”

“The number of things I failed to grasp back then was as limitless as stars in the night sky. “

“In joy we may wander off in our separate directions, but in sorrow we prefer to hold hands.

“Swimming is the reset button.”

“The stories that are familiar will always be our favorites.”

“A child’s ability to misunderstand is limitless, even when she is no longer a child.”

“He is incalculably more than the person I knew, and he is that person as well.”

“I had believed Tom Lake was more enlightened than the average small town in Michigan, but the longer I stayed, the more I could see how it operated like the rest of the world. The directors and the choreographers were men. The men chose the plays, made the schedule, and ran the lights. The women made the food, styled the wigs, and glued false eyelashes onto eyelids.”

“We understood that there had never really been a world in which Pallace would have stayed with a tennis coach from East Detroit, never any world in which Duke would stay with anyone at all.”

“The past need not be so all-encompassing that it renders us incapable of making egg salad.”

“The past, were I to type it up, would look like a disaster, but regardless of how it ended we all had many good days.”

“It’s not that I’m unaware of the suffering and the soon-to-be-more suffering in the world, it’s that I know the suffering exists beside wet grass and a bright blue sky recently scrubbed by rain.”


Can I get a printable version of the book club guide?

Yes! We have a printable version of this guide in our shop that includes bonus goodies, like games, printable bookmarks, and bonus context for further discussion.

Sample pages from the printable version of the Tom Lake book club guide

Is there a Tom Lake audiobook?

Yes! The audiobook is narrated by actress Meryl Streep, who brings extra life to the character of Lara based on her own long-time experiences as an actress and mother to three daughters.

Audible listeners rate the audiobook performance 4.5 out of 5 stars. Of course, as with all audiobooks, some people enjoy the narration, and others don’t. We always recommend listening to a sample of the audiobook before committing to reading in this format.

Do I need to be familiar with “Our Town” to understand Tom Lake?

Author Ann Patchett was first introduced to Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” at the age of just nine and she has continued to revisit the play throughout her life. She spent many years thinking about writing a novel that involved the play before finally penning Tom Lake.

You definitely don’t have to have read or seen the play “Our Town” to understand and appreciate Tom Lake. However, some people find the book even more enjoyable when they can make connections between the play and the novel.

If you haven’t had an opportunity to read or see “Our Town,” or if your memory has gotten fuzzy over the years, we recommend watching the filmed version of the 1989 stage production at the Lyceum Theatre. This is the version of the play that Lara auditioned for on Broadway, starring Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager.

Will there be a Tom Lake movie?

Reese Witherspoon selected Tom Lake as her August 2023 Reese’s Book Club pick. This led to some speculation regarding whether Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, might be planning a film adaptation. We’ll continue to follow future developments and keep you posted if we learn of a Tom Lake movie release date!

Are there other books like Tom Lake?

If you loved the book’s setting amidst a Michigan cherry orchard, be sure to pick up Famous in a Small Town by Viola Shipman.

For another character-driven look at the lives of actors in a small theater company, we recommend Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. While the Goodreads rating is lower than we normally recommend, Book Girl Angela really enjoyed it as someone who has spent a lot of time in the theater community with her husband, a musical theater actor. Theater fans will also want to check out our full list of the best theater fiction books.

If you enjoyed Lara’s younger years as she tried to figure out who she was in relationships and in her career, we recommend Writers & Lovers by Lily King.

If you enjoyed the celebrity narration of Tom Lake, we also recommend Ann Patchett’s novel The Dutch House, which is narrated by Tom Hanks.

About Ann Patchett

In addition to being an award-winning, best-selling author of 8 novels, 5 non-fiction works, and 2 children’s books, Ann Patchett owns a bookstore. You can visit Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee. When purchased from Parnassus, all of Ann’s books are signed and can be personalized!

We hope you found this book club guide helpful!

As a reminder, you can get the guide in a print-friendly format for your book club meeting in our Etsy shop! Each purchase helps us continue providing great book lists and book resources here.

Sample pages for the printable Tom Lake book club guide


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One Comment

  1. Beverly S says:

    Thank you for Moscato suggestion! So delicious!