Fellowship Point: Quakers, Conflict, and Friendship



By Alice Elliott Dark

Simon and Schuster, 578 pages

★★★★ ½ 



It has been said that Quakers came to do good and did well. In a roundabout way, that’s the crux of Fellowship Point, a superb new novel by Alice Elliott Dark.


Its central character is Agnes Lee who did well indeed in her inheritance and as author of a series of children’s books about 9-year-old Nan, whose adventures are reminiscent of a better-behaved Eloise. Agnes has remained mum about the inspiration for Nan. Her lifelong friend Polly Wister always imagined it was her daughter Lydia, who died at nine.


Much of the novel is about the friendship between Agnes and Polly, though it’s not easy being Agnes’s friend. Agnes is an opinionated crank with secrets, is a confirmed spinster, and unbeknown even to Polly also writes under the pseudonym of Pauline Schultz. Those books are arch takedowns of Rittenhouse Square elites, though the Lees could be counted among them. As is often the case, those who lampoon miss the irony that they “have met the enemy and they is us,” as Pogo would have put it.


Agnes is also the fulcrum of another irony in that old Quaker money is behind the novel’s namesake dilemma: what to do with Fellowship Point. Several generations ago, five families bought 35 acres of coastal land in Maine, where they summered amidst locals. The latter are a mix of those who provide services joyfully, those who do so grudgingly, and those who want no part of outsiders.


Themes of native Mainers versus summer people are commonplace in literature, but Dark twists an old meme via a plot device that blurs who’s right and who’s wrong. Agnes and Polly, both in their 80s, want the Point and the wild “Sank” to become a public trust. That’s tricky as the original charter stipulates that three of the five families that own the land must vote to dissolve their association before anything else can be done with it. Agnes never married, so no problem there, but obstacles loom.


Polly likes the idea, but she’s passive in more than the Quaker opposition to war. She kowtows to her husband Dick, an embittered retired UPenn philosophy professor denied emeritus status. Agnes thinks he’s a pompous lightweight but tries to hold her tongue for Polly’s sake. His legacy will complicate matters and strain old friendships. Various cousins also have a say, including Archie, who is married to the unspeakably vain and manipulative Seela. There is also a development team that envisions an upscale resort, and Polly’s three sons, especially James, a smug (and greedy?) version of his father. It's difficult for locals to stay clear of this brewing tempest, including  Robert Circumstance who has tended the grounds for years and is a skilled landscape designer who has made Fellowship Point elegant.


As if Agnes doesn't have enough to navigate, she has a medical crisis and is being badgered by Maud Silver, an editorial assistant who hopes to advance her flagging career by convincing Agnes to write her memoir. That's about the last thing she wants to do! Maud also has baggage. Few know that she’s a single mom to a nine-year-old, or that her mother Heidi is in a catatonic state. Colleagues observe that Maud goes home earlier than anyone else, which is blood to sharks in New York publishing.


The novel spans the years 1961 to 2008 and is infused with many of the crises and highlights of those years, including Kennedy’s assassination, 9/11, and Barack Obama’s election. The past and present similarly collide, clash, and sometimes resolve among Dark’s characters. There's a lot going on in the book including the often-conflicting bonds between biological and intentional families and how one defines ownership, friendship, and love. Intertwined are a few mysteries and a wild card scenario in the Mainers versus summer people dilemma that redefines public and private spaces.


I really liked this novel, though it would be fair commentary to say that Dark is sometimes too ambitious for her own good. This causes her to trade in a few too many “coincidences.” Though Dark leavens her tale with humor, these sometimes stretch credulity. Still, Agnes is very memorable, even though she is fusty and obdurate. She put me in mind of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge: hard on the outside with soft spots hidden inside. Ultimately, Fellowship Point is a bit like the Quakers in that goodwill and right intentions prevail.


Rob Weir




Edvard Munch at the Clark Will Surprise you


Edvard Munch–Trembling Earth

Clark Art Institute

Williamstown, MA

Through October 15, 2023

[Click for full-sized images]



Do you recognize the above image? Of course you do; The Scream is one of the most famous images in Western art history. Perhaps you’re wondering why it’s not in color like the one you used to hang in your college dorm room around finals time. Contrary to popular myth, artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) made several versions of this 1893 work, including woodcuts and drawings. The one you see is part of a new exhibition of 75 Munch works at the Clark.



How about this next painting? It’s also Munch and it doesn’t really fit with perceptions that the Norwegian Munch was a painter whose acid greens and subdued colors reflected the gloomy nature of the artist. You’re not wrong to think Munch was often wracked by anxiety, but that was not the full measure of the man. As an adult, he admitted that his formative years were marked by “sickness, insanity, and death.” He also studied nihilism, lived in a climate that could be foreboding, and battled depression. Yet he also found great beauty and inspiration in nature. That’s the central concept of Trembling Earth and, if you want to see it, you have to go to Williamstown, Massachusetts, as the Clark is the only place it will be on view.



The exhibit is arranged in six rooms themed by things that inspired Munch, including the forest, cultivated land, and seascapes. As such, the only other iconic work you’ll see is a version of Ashes (above). What will surprise most attendees, though, is that, though many Munch efforts are suffused with the weaker light of Scandinavia, his overall palette was frequently brighter and more vivid than you might have thought. 



 Munch spent much of his time in Oslo–called Kristiana in his day–but he also had a country home 100 kilometers south of the city. His home was surrounded by flowers and orchards were filled with fruits. In short, Munch had a deep appreciation for the natural world. 


Starry Night 

Two Horses


 To be sure, his world was rocked by the death of a beloved sister and the postmortem revelation that his father left behind crippling debt but there were also stimulating experiences. He traveled to Berlin on occasion, but a key moment came when he went to Paris in 1889, the year the world’s fair showcased the then-new Eiffel Tower. That didn’t inspire Munch nearly as much as Impressionism and paintings he saw from a failed Dutch expatriate: Vincent Van Gogh. Bet you didn’t know that Munch also painted a canvas titled Starry Night. You can also see Impressionism’s impact on Munch in the thickness of the paint he knifed onto some of his paintings.


Note continuation of hair into beach and sky


Munch was not really an Impressionist (nor was Van Gogh.) His work is generally lumped with Expressionism–especially German art and late Van Gogh–and Symbolists like Paul Gauguin. A quick primer: Impressionism focuses on light, Expressionism on inner feelings, and Symbolism on the mystical. And, yes, they often overlap. Munch often painted human figures from behind or as stylized. I’ve often wondered if that’s because he wasn’t particularly good with realistic faces, but that’s pure speculation on my part.  




Two Women


As for the tortured Munch, he obtained fame and money around 1902, but it didn’t serve him well. He drank too much, brawled, and had a nervous breakdown in 1908. Anxiety and melancholy make frequent appearances in his art and even benign titles such as Two Women evokes Egon Schiele’s Death and the Maiden. Munch lived through the 1918 flu epidemic and worried that the Nazis would confiscate his art during World War II. When the latter did not happen and fascist collaborators held a political funeral for Munch who died just before the war ended, rumors circulated that Munch was a sympathizer. That view is soaked in more doubt than evidence. 





We do know, though, that Munch struggled to maintain mental stability. The above painting  might give tongue-in-cheek confirmation of his imbalance in that he painted nude bathers at the seaside. Swimming naked in Norway? It was considered healthful. And you thought diving into the waters of Maine was crazy! Some of these works are actually Expressionist in character; others a nod to precocious Post-Impressionists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, another artist Munch admired.


It may be a stretch to force fit Munch into a framework of 21st century environmentalism, but the skinny is that Trembling Earth challenges us to reconsider what we think of Munch. You would do well to make travel plans that include a trip to the Clark.   


Rob Weir


Women Talking is Powerful and Brilliant


Directed by Sarah Polley

United Artists Releasing, 104 minutes, PG-13 (themes of rape and violence)




Women Talking was a highly acclaimed but little seen Oscar Best Picture nominee. Make no mistake; it certainly deserved more consideration for Best Picture than the video game tripe that actually won. (Director Sarah Polley did win for Best Adapted Screenplay.)


Polley has largely forsaken acting for the director’s chair (Away From Her; Alias Grace). Although it might not seem immediately apparent, Women Talking is a deeply feminist and political film that confirms the buzz that Polley is one of the brightest and boldest of her generation. It is what one might get by mashing together The Handmaid’s Tale, The Trojan Women, and a Mennonite community from hell. It really is about Mennonites, a good starting point for discussing Polley’s brash and brilliant film. You might think it a cheap shot to attack a group of communal Anabaptists, but what you see on the screen is based on a lightly fictionalized account from ex-Mennonite Miriam Toews whose community in Bolivia saw male members secretly administer animal tranquilizers to rape females aged 3 to 65. (Another in Manitoba also had such cases.) In Women Talking, the women aver pacifism, but many of the men fall short of that lofty goal.


The camera pans a young woman who awakes to injuries and an STD from a sexual assault. This time, though, her mother Salome (Claire Foy) storms a holding area where several men await transfer to jail, scythe in hand. She is subdued by female elders, but readily admits her willingness to kill. While most of the remaining men journey to an unnamed city to arrange bail, 11 leading women—many of whom have no idea of who fathered their children–gather to decide whether to practice Christian forgiveness, stay and fight back, or leave and create a new community. Women are not taught to read and write, but they vote by making an X on a large sheet of paper. Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand, one of the film’s co-producers) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley) lead the status quo but are vastly outnumbered. The problem, though, is a dead tie between stay-and-fight led by Salome and Mejal (Michele McLeod) and those who feel they must leave to retain their pacifism, including Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy). Ona (Rooney Mara) also leans in that direction, though she harbors idealistic notions of building a community of love either within or outside the community. 


The women do as the title suggests: talk. They appoint sweet-tempered August (Ben Whishaw) as their chronicler as they weigh the options. He is the community teacher (boys only) who comes from an ex-communicated family and failed as a farmer. He is also deeply in love with Ona and she with him, though she carries a child via her own rape. There is also a transgender character in the film: Melvin (August Winter, who is non-binary), who presents as a man and has spoken only to children after being sexually assaulted.


If you think that debate is a blood sport, you’ve never had one with women wrestling with how best to express their faith. Heated, yes, but enveloped within beliefs based upon how to attain the Kingdom of God. Like Ona, they must decide whether that is best accomplished by staying or leaving. Two events will tip the scales.


Polley takes us inside a world most of us will never experience. Her direction, supplemented by a superb original score from Icelandic cellist and composer Hilda Guðandóttir (and an assist from The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer”) that adds to the otherworldly ambience. Polley’s greatest achievement though, was what she wrung from her cast. If you only know Claire Foy from her role as a young Queen Elizabeth, her fiery anger and grit will surprise, but Jessie Buckley is her equal–though initially they hold opposing views. Sheila McCarthy is better known in Canada, but she’s an absolute delight as a thoughtful grandmotherly type who likes to expound upon what she has learned from her horses and isn’t afraid to screw on a wry smile and admit when she has misjudged. She is the balm to Ivey’s reason and impatience. None, though, surprise like Rooney Mara. You might not initially recognize her in her dimpled-face innocence and the depth she exudes in a soft-spoken almost ethereal role.


Brava to Sarah Polley. Women Talking is a triumph.


Rob Weir