Fellowship Point

I loved this book.  When looking for reviews, I came across this one from the New York Times.  It said everything so well, that I have just pasted it here and given credit to the author, Kate Christensen.  

  Dont skip this book!!!

"Pay Attention to These Old Women. You’ll Learn Something.

Alice Elliott Dark’s ambitious new novel, “Fellowship Point,” explores a lifetime of lessons about friendship, loyalty and land.

Novels featuring older characters are well suited to an exploration of questions about time, history and change. Unlike younger protagonists, they already know who they’ve become and what they’ve made of their lives. They’re not finished yet, but they are as busy reckoning with the past as they are living in the present. They are in full possession of the bulk of their life’s trajectory, so their primary aim is to resolve and make sense of things before they die.

The two women at the center of Alice Elliott Dark’s enthralling, masterfully written new novel have been friends for about 80 years, since they were babies. Their long intertwined families, wealthy Philadelphian Quakers, own “cottages” on a Maine peninsula. Fellowship Point is a pristinely preserved place where every year they find “the same old lobster buoys and the boom of the ocean and the whistles in the treetops,” and where “the moss and ground cover yearned toward the spears of light, and the shadows were bubbles of cool.”

Agnes Lee, the novel’s driving force, is a prickly, solitary, unmarried, childless vegetarian, as well as a famous children’s book writer with a secret identity. She’s the pseudonymous author of a best-selling series of satirical novels in which she wickedly skewers her wealthy Philadelphian female cohort. Agnes balks when Maud Silver, a 27-year-old editorial assistant, tries to spur her to write a memoir about the genesis of her children’s books. But still, she finds herself unable to resist Maud’s admiration, as well as her fierce intelligence, which turns out to be a match for Agnes’s own. Maud is an interesting foil for Agnes, and the resulting relationship between these two women, one old, one young, provides a secondary source of emotional fuel to “Fellowship Point” as well as a series of plot twists that (astonishingly) manage to tie everything together.

Agnes’s oldest and dearest friend, Polly Wister, is a pretty, people-pleasing wife and mother coming to terms with a decades-long marriage in which she devotedly propped up her philosophy professor husband and three demanding sons while squelching her own ambition and intellect and mourning a daughter who died in childhood. She is constantly juggling her lifelong friendship with Agnes — who, to put it mildly, can be difficult — with the needs of her family. “Polly’s attention was split,” is how we first encounter her; this turns out to be her leitmotif.

The ongoing tension in this ancient friendship is made clear from the get-go. Agnes, a staunch feminist, is irritated by Polly’s constant attendance to her husband, Dick: She “couldn’t imagine being that cowed.” And it galls Agnes that she lacks primacy in her best friend’s life; she “wanted to be most important.” Most problematically for Polly, Agnes is urging her to support her in putting their jointly owned peninsula in conservation, dissolving the family partnership and interrupting the line of inheritance in order to keep it from being developed by Polly’s insufferable oldest son, James.

Agnes challenges Polly, and Polly passively resists, and so it goes until … a remarkable scene about halfway through the book in which the two friends finally, at long last, say aloud to each other, bluntly and hotly, the things they’ve been suppressing for decades. As Dark puts it, “Vesuvius erupted.”

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The aftermath of this explosion feels both wholly believable and complexly imagined, true to both women’s characters and the demands of the entire world Dark has so deftly created. The final third of the book brings its two central questions to a head: How will the friends reconcile? And what is going to happen to their sublimely beautiful place after they die?

One of the novel’s deepest pleasures lies in the ways in which Dark intertwines the social and personal concerns of the main characters — love, unrequited and requited, sex, fulfilling and otherwise, motherhood and lack thereof, work and lack thereof — with the historical and political. Maine’s ongoing tension between natives and newcomers has a long history. The Point’s present occupants collect relics from the Abenakis’ summer encampment, with an awareness of the people who lived there long before them. This sense of the past undergirds the seasonal incursions of contemporary wealthy summer people into the lives of the now-natives, the year-round Mainers whose livelihoods at least partially depend on them.

Two larger questions underlie the central, personal ones: What do we owe ourselves and one another, and how do we reconcile the difference? To whom does this land, or any land, truly belong?

As I read, I thought of the famous epigraph of E.M. Forster’s novel “Howards End,” which reads: “Only connect … ” Agnes and Polly are, each in her own way, seeking moral and philosophical connections as they try to reconcile the truths of their present-day lives with the past, often in flashes of poignant recognition. A scene late in the novel shows Polly looking into a mirror at the hump on her back, seeing “a person who’d spent her life among others, acting as a counterweight to ensure fun and peace.”

Later, Agnes has a similar moment of disjunction, reading a newspaper article about the planned development of Fellowship Point: “Would this be happening if I weren’t an old woman?” she says to Robert Circumstance, the younger local man who’s been a surrogate son to her. “Would these men feel so free to disregard all my experience and wisdom and knowledge?”

The novel’s resolution — unexpected and yet, once we get there, satisfying and inevitable — is handled with such skill in its temporal layering, I had to tip my writerly hat over and over to Dark. What first appears to be the story of two old ladies in Maine turns out to be a sophisticated inquiry into the course of female lives, with time as an instrument of revelation, folding in on itself, opening out, revealing the multilayered histories of both Polly and Agnes as a means of showing a kind of existential truth: “Nothing owes its existence to something. And something owes its existence to nothing.” When Polly tells her husband this, early in the novel, he brushes it aside as too simple and intuitive to be taken seriously. His brusque dismissal is as telling as her excitement.

“Fellowship Point” is a novel rich with social and psychological insights, both earnest and sly, big ideas grounded in individual emotions, a portrait of a tightly knit community made up of artfully drawn, individual souls. In the end, as Agnes sums it up, “There wasn’t time for withholding, not in this short life when you were only given to know a few people, and to have a true exchange with one or two.”

In other words, fellowship is the point. Only connect