“A handful of names and a street map.” That’s what one admired author once told me you needed to write a novel. If so, Alice Elliott Dark’s powerful, enchanting “Fellowship Point” takes that maxim into the stratosphere.
True, “Fellowship” supplies some tasty names — Robert Circumstance, Hamm Loose — and a delicious, “Treasure Island”-style map of its title’s peninsula on the coast of Maine (trimmed with gulls, sailboats, graveyard, pine trees). These are only groundwork. And don’t worry about retaining anything. It will become as intimate as if you lived there.
Disclosure: You may want to live there.
Dark fans who devoured “In the Gloaming” and other, earlier works, rejoice. Striking from the first for its clear, sharply intelligent voice, streaming wisdom and wit on nearly all of close to 600 pages, “Fellowship” embodies a magnificent storytelling feat.
Three women take narrative turns, from alternating locales and eras. Central to them — to us — is Agnes Lee, age 80, author of a wildly successful children’s book series. Under a pseudonym, Agnes also writes a popular adult series, tracking the lives (Mary McCarthy-like) of a group of young women.
Why the pen name? For perfect freedom. “[T]here was no chance she could be in society and skewer it, too.” Equally, “to inoculate herself from succumbing to the fates of her friends ... as they married or got jobs. It galled her to see them make themselves smaller ... subsumed into utility and support. ... [I]t was harder for girls who’d grown up as she had [privileged, educated] to notice exactly when they’d been conscripted into the power structure. ... [Agnes] had a clear visceral objection. It was her subject...”
Boy, is it ever. A pitiless noticer and truth-teller, Agnes rarely plays nicely. Results — in unfurling relationships with family, friends, lovers, almost-lovers — are gratifying and heart-shredding. Some of the many miracles of this dense, bristling, multilayered work are its gut-level reality checks on modern sex, love, money, class, aging, and power. Yet though it fearlessly faces down topical problems (ecology, marriage, inequality) “Fellowship” remains compassionately complex, avoiding polemic, caricature, or infomercials. Its life is rooted in loyalty to humanness, to people so real you can see, hear, and smell them.
Despite her age and quiet bouts with cancer, Agnes has “not slowed down. ... Her remaining work was urgent, and she was well aware of working alongside the specter of the unknown moment of her last breath.”
Within this tightening frame we meet other major players: Polly, Agnes’s neighbor on the Point and lifelong best friend; Maud, a young New York editor of Agnes’s books and struggling single mother; Maud’s own mother, Heidi, a brave but lonely manic-depressive whose tragic origins seem clouded. Significant men figure: the above-named, wise and kindly Robert, the venal Hamm, and their forebears.
Forebears matter. The Point, a partnership founded by Quakers, is now run by a handful of surviving shareholders — among them Polly and Agnes. When the Loose clan threatens to develop the pristine land (home to fragile flora, fauna, and Indigenous artifacts), Agnes works fiercely to convince shareholders to donate it to a protecting trust. Loyalties clash — including those of Polly and Agnes, who’ve known each other “so well that their speech was as vertical in nature as a good poem, and a glance could stand for a dialogue.”
When Polly’s eyes fill after learning of Agnes’s diagnosis, Agnes has no time for it: “Polly! ... There are upsides. Cancer is a conversation stopper. And there are very few conversations I don’t want to stop.”
So much is deeply considered: facets of memory, family (parent viewing child; child assessing parent), death and grief, thwarted love, socio-ecological responsibility. “[T]he world needed places free of human notions. She knew what people were like, herself included. ... [S]he wanted to make sure the [land] was protected by humans from humans.”
In the braided voices of Agnes, Polly, and Maud, “Fellowship” fairly thunders with authority. Maud, on raising a toddler: “No one told you that you’d be all right with your child’s worst scents.” On her career: “[Her] very particular way of being a feminist ... was not to mimic traditionally masculine behaviors. There was ... [a] freer way.” Agnes on the aging, never-married, lone artist: “She’d only loved a few people. Most of those had been dead for a long time now.” Polly, suffering a bright woman’s anguish in marriage to a blinkered man, on noticing her grown children too late: “such beasts!”
Yet this wealth of rumination never sags, or drags. Instead it manages a seamless fluidity between interiority and scene, gathering relentless momentum, drawing us in tight as it pushes toward a stinging culmination — to resolve (secrets spilled, mysteries cracked) by its amazing close.
What may be most astonishing is Dark’s ability to totally inhabit a series of disparate characters down to the DNA — to walk around in their skins: a canny, contemporary George Eliot. (The novel’s heart ponders friendship: perhaps everyone’s final frontier.)
But its ultimate character must be the lush, craggy Point itself, a monumental given, stately as its weather, which Dark delivers with painterly care. Its glittering sea, forests, wildlife, rocky promontories, troves of ancient leavings and legacies — seep into human doings, as palpable and breathing as all its denizens. “Fellowship Point” gives us a world.
By Alice Elliott Dark
Scribner/Marysue Rucci Books, 592 pages, $28.99
Joan Frank’s latest novel is “The Outlook for Earthlings.” Forthcoming in fall are a short novel, “Juniper Street,” and an essay collection, “Late Work: A Literary Autobiography of Love, Loss, and What I Was Reading.”