by Elizabeth Spencer
Fellowship Point is Alice Elliott Dark’s second novel (and her first in 20 years). When I read her short story “In the Gloaming” years ago, I was struck by her beautiful prose style and indelible characters. She was the kind of writer I would’ve liked to read more of, so when I heard she had a novel coming out last summer, it shot to the top of my to be read list. Luckily, it did not disappoint.
In an interview last July on the New York Times Book Review’s podcast, Dark said that she had “wanted to write something like a 19th-century-style novel and … have it be modern.” That was exactly my experience on reading Fellowship Point, an immersive 592-page novel that spans the 20th century and the lives of Agnes and Polly, two upper-class Quaker women from Philadelphia whose families summered together on the coast of Maine—on a fictional peninsula called Fellowship Point. The two friends, who have known each other all their lives, chose different paths. Polly led the life that society had expected of her: marriage, children, and a selfless devotion to the demands of house and family. Agnes never married or had children, and she became a writer: she is the author of a popular children’s book series, When Nan, and the pseudonymous author of the Franklin Square novels, which follow the lives of women characters who belong to Agnes’s generation and social class.
Fellowship Point begins in 2000, when Agnes and Polly are both 80 years old. Agnes is experiencing writer’s block for the first time, as she tries to write what she intends to be her final Franklin Square novel. She has just been diagnosed with breast cancer and is facing a double mastectomy. Moreover, looming in the background is the threat of real estate development on Fellowship Point. The land and houses are owned by a fellowship of shareholders, including Agnes and Polly. In order to allow the real estate development, three of the shareholders must agree to break the agreement and transfer the land to a trust. Agnes, to whom Fellowship Point is beloved, has no heirs, and wants Polly to work with her to conserve the land instead of passing her share to her eldest son. Polly is torn between her loyalty to Agnes and the land, and her loyalty to her family, who are in favor of the development.
Dark told The Times, “The issue of land, land ownership, land conservation, has always been of deep interest to me,” and that issue is a recurring theme in the novel, which describes Agnes’s quest to secure the conservation of Fellowship Point before she dies. At first, Agnes is primarily concerned with preserving the Sank, a 33-acre sanctuary at the tip of the peninsula that is home to eagles and a variety of other birds, as well as native woodland flora and trees. As the novel progresses, she also thinks more about the Abenaki and other indigenous peoples who had lived on that land before Agnes’ great-grandfather bought it and built five houses for himself and his friends.
Fellowship Point is divided into seven parts. Alternating chapters are written from the perspectives of Agnes, Polly, and Maud, a younger woman who enters Agnes’s life as an ambitious editorial assistant. Maud wants Agnes to write a memoir that would reveal the true story behind the main character in the When Nan series, and to publish it at the same time as a new boxed set of the When Nan books, but Agnes resists this idea, wanting to keep this part of her life private. However, Agnes eventually befriends Maud, and secrets are revealed, some of which had been known to Agnes, and some that surprise everyone.
Although the novel begins in 2000, it reads in some ways like a 19th-century novel: we inhabit these characters’ lives fully, from their interior thoughts to their physical surroundings. Fellowship Point unfolds at a leisurely pace, taking time to build its world and its characters. Some readers may find the pacing too slow for their taste, but I found it refreshing. Although I sometimes enjoy reading fast-paced novels with a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, they never linger in my mind. Dark’s novel, in contrast, is the kind that leaves me with a sort of reading hangover. Ever since I finished it a few days ago, I have felt adrift, missing the comfort of returning to this world each night. It’s hard to decide what to read next after you finish something as engrossing as this. If you are looking for that type of reading experience, I cannot recommend Fellowship Point enough. It would a good book to read over the winter, or on a summer vacation. There are many threads to follow, but they are knitted together in a satisfying way at the end.
Overall, I found Fellowship Point to be an enjoyable read and a refreshing combination of the historic and the modern. Although written in an old-fashioned style, the novel is concerned with contemporary themes such as environmentalism, land conservation, reparations, the justice system, gender roles, and mental illness. While the setting of coastal Maine might suggest a mere fun summer read, the reader is prompted to think about the issues that the novel raises—and perhaps even to act on them. And how many novels—these days or ever—feature two women in their 80s as protagonists? I enjoyed seeing older women described as fully fleshed-out characters with internal and physical struggles motivating their actions. I hope more authors will follow in Dark’s footsteps to dramatize this final stage of life— when impending mortality gives everything the characters do a sense of urgency.