“Simple Truths”: Alice Elliott Dark, Fellowship Point

darkThey belonged here. Of course. It was obvious. They belonged here and they should be here. Why not? Why on earth not? Why should she and Polly leave the Point to a land trust rather than to the people who had loved it the longest? Her heart pounded. It had taken her her whole life to see it, but now that she did, nothing could be as clear. The simple truths are always hidden in plain sight, only veiled by the complications of the human mind.

I read almost all of Fellowship Point‘s 575 pages in a single day, which is a testament to how engrossing I found it. That said, by the time I finished it I was disappointed in it: although it is admirably smart and ambitious and encompasses a lot of people, events, and themes, there’s a central plot “resolution” that I found very artificial, not satisfying in any way except as a planned revelation to pull things too neatly together. Furthermore, the final resolution about the future of the land known as Fellowship Point, while the right answer in probably every way, nonetheless felt awkwardly didactic as it actually played out. (Note that I avoid saying exactly what that plot point is or what happens to the land: this is partly because I consider it a courtesy to avoid spoilers here, but also because if you do go on to read the novel itself, I don’t want my stamp of disapproval to mark these elements too prominently. My guess is that you’ll recognize them in any case, but you may well respond to them differently!)

Fellowship Point is like a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel if it were written by Elizabeth Strout: it’s a family saga that sprawls across generations, and it’s a close-up study of two idiosyncratic older women, Agnes and Polly, long-time best friends, whose lives are intimately connected to their neighboring family properties on the coast of Maine. These two women are the best part of the book, and since they are a big part of it, that’s a good thing! Agnes is the most Strout-like of the two, acerbic, independent, uncompromising, unmarried—a grouch with a heart of gold. Polly is kinder, gentler, easier, more accommodating. She is married to a Casaubon-like scholar, a retired philosophy professor struggling to sustain his self-esteem and sense of purpose now that he’s cut off from formal academic life. I had to laugh at his response to Polly’s helpful suggestion that “until his next book came out he write a weblog to express his opinions”:

“Are you serious?” He frowned. “A weblog, on the computer? I’d be laughed out of the profession. . . . ” He’d adopted blog as a catchphrase rather than an activity. “Time to work on my blog,” he’d say for all kinds of transitions—when he repaired to the bathroom, for example.

OK, fair enough! But Polly’s ideas aren’t in fact foolish ones, in this case or in other circumstances, and much of the novel is about her learning to trust herself and her judgment, to stand up against his and then her sons’ tendency to belittle or dismiss her, often in the condescending guise of loving concern.

dark2Agnes, in contrast, has to get out of her own way, to stop guarding her secrets and make space in her life for love and forgiveness. This means reckoning with a traumatic incident from her past, which we learn about through the device of a long series of letters she wrote to her dead sister, which she eventually decides to share with the novel’s third protagonist, Maud Silver, an ambitious young editor eager to convince Agnes to write a full and frank memoir.

For me, it was the letters that began to sap the energy of the novel. They felt like a device, for one thing, an answer to “how do we get this backstory in?” Agnes as shown through the third-person narration is a more vivid and engaging character than Agnes in their first-person voice, too. And the backstory itself took way too long to unspool. I was curious about it, but after a while I was tempted to skim through the letters so I could just find out what the big deal was. Once I knew and I began to suspect how the other pieces fit together, I got somewhat irritable about it all, even though I liked Agnes and Polly enough to want to know how it all turned out.

Thematically, the most substantial issue in the novel is people’s relationship to the land they live on: how ideas about ownership or stewardship, about belonging or sharing or developing or loving the land, affect how it is treated and reflect other, broader, values about how we live in the world. In her acknowledgements, Dark says

As a child I learned that I lived on land where indigenous peoples had lived for hundreds of years. I never stopped thinking about this and wondering what to do about it. The question found its way into this novel. I hope we all find a just answer.

I think the novel does offer “a just answer” to its own specific scenario, but it comes across as pat, rather than as artistically satisfying. It’s true that clues about what that answer might or should be are present from early in Fellowship Point, and maybe if I reread it I would find that this thread (political, ethical, and thematic) is interwoven more richly than I noticed. Maybe, too, it’s thematically appropriate to keep the better alternative to the two options that are more overtly the novel’s central conflict out of sight until nearly the end: it makes sense, I suppose, that the third option wouldn’t even occur to Agnes, loving Fellowship Point and its family history as she does, until quite late—indeed, almost too late. Maybe this answer was meant to feel disruptive of our expectations, especially given the novel’s otherwise familiar genre. All I can say is that I wasn’t convinced by it, however just and right it is in principle, as the right ending for Fellowship Point or, to look at it the other way around, Fellowship Point didn’t read to me like the right novel for that ending. There’s just too much else going on in it that doesn’t really tie in to it.

I also wasn’t in love with Maud’s plot, and I really didn’t like the Big Reveal about it . . . but enough criticism. Really, it’s strange that I have so many complaints about the novel, considering how immersed I was in it in the moment. It is very readable, clearly. I don’t mean that as damning it with faint praise: it’s a lot! Many novels don’t achieve even that much. I appreciated, too, the obvious ambition of the novel, even if, in my judgment, its ambition is not matched by its achievement. Before I read it, I was surprised that my local independent bookstore has it filed under “fiction,” rather than “literature.” I’m always amused by their confident distinction between these two categories and I’m often tempted to challenge them both on the concepts and on their choices about what goes where. Now I think that in this case, they got it right—which isn’t to say it isn’t a good novel, but I am not at all convinced that it’s a great one.

One thought on ““Simple Truths”: Alice Elliott Dark, Fellowship Point

  1. JEANNE May 15, 2023 / 9:31 pm

    What a great brief comparison: “like a Barbara Taylor Bradford novel if it were written by Elizabeth Strout.” That made me laugh out loud.


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