Alice Elliott Dark’s second novel, Fellowship Point (Scribner/Rucci, July), takes on currently relevant themes—feminism, aging, environmentalism—but the center is timeless: a story of women’s friendship. Agnes and Polly are lifelong best friends who have followed very different paths. Polly is married with children, deferential to her husband, affluent; Agnes is independent, a successful writer of feminist books for children and the author of a literary adult series written under a pseudonym.
Now 80, Agnes is struggling with her health and writers block and convincing Polly to join her in preserving Fellowship Point, a section of coastal land in Maine that has been in both women’s families for generations. The situation creates a litmus test for relationships with family, friends, and community, and the enduring connection of these two women is a lens with which to examine the arc of feminism across the 20th century.
Fellowship Point is an immersive, intimate, modern interpretation of a 19th-century novel—a literary page-turner that hits all the salient points of the long-entwined lives of two female friends.
The book’s history is its own story. World rights were sold to Simon & Schuster in 2002 based on a partial manuscript for a novel about a woman’s book club. Dark had just published her debut novel, Think of England, following two story collections. She wrote the contracted novel, originally called The Book Group, but she says when The Jane Austen Book Club came out, “it didn’t seem like a good idea to have a second one so I put the book away. I started another novel but couldn’t figure it out and put that one away as well.”
Then, Dark recalls, in 2011, at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, “I had hit a wall and just sat in a chair for many hours looking out the window when a character came to me. I wrote pages that didn’t end up in the book, but other characters arrived. When Agnes came in, she was larger than life and the energy shifted.”
The story, Dark says, was always about Maine, where she spent summers and her mother had a house, and she adds, “I always write about women. I’ve always been interested in the lives of women, especially old women. I didn’t think about it until someone asked me, ‘What is your book about?’ And I said, ‘Two old women.’ And then I thought, two old women is not the stuff of popular fiction! But even at 80, they are still changing, growing. I’m interested in all aspects of women—as children, as young women, as older women. The whole cycle of women’s lives is fascinating to me.”
Meanwhile, Dark’s agent, Henry Dunow of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner, who says he’s known her for 25 years “as an author and an agent and a friend,” tells me that “Alice had one editor after another and, for a long time, no editor. There were a lot of false starts.” When Jon Karp became publisher at S&S in 2010, Dunow asked him to “keep the faith, be patient, have belief in this author.” Karp did, and Dunow says this is “one of the happier publishing stories of belief, loyalty, and fairness.”
Dunow saw bits and pieces of Fellowship as Alice worked on it for the next 10 years. (“Henry bothered me once, in 2010,” Dark says). By 2018 she had a 1,400-page draft, which she cut to 800 pages and gave to Dunow, who felt it was a masterpiece. He reached out to S&S editorial director Marysue Rucci and asked if she would “watch over it.”
Rucci agreed with Dunow about Fellowship being a masterpiece. They revised the original contract, “rearranging the elements,” she says. When Rucci was given her own imprint at Scribner in August 2021, Fellowship Point went with her.
“We just kept hoping that at some point Alice would deliver,” Rucci says. “I left S&S, came back, and in 2018, Henry called me. ‘I have great news!’ he said. ‘What?’ I asked. ‘A manuscript from Alice. The only thing is, it’s 800 pages.’ ”
Rucci was intrigued when Dunow offered her the book; she was always a fan of Dark’s writing. “We cut 250 pages,” Rucci says. “Alice is an extraordinary revisor and so gracious. From the first you know you are with someone with extraordinary skill. When I got the imprint, I was hoping she would move with me. I thought it was the perfect book to anchor the inaugural list: the ideas of conservation, the possibilities, or not, for women. It’s a beautiful social critique and such a gorgeous friendship between these two women. People have said, ‘Finally! I can’t wait to give this to my best friend.’ ”
Dark didn’t know Rucci, but when she received a letter from her about how much she loved the book, Dark says, “it was unbelievable and exciting and gratifying and an overwhelming relief. Marysue responded with such enthusiasm. She was great to work with and I was very glad to go over to Scribner with her.”
Although Dark says she started Fellowship Point before the Ferrante books, she was excited by the fact that her character Agnes is an anonymous author like Ferrante. “I could watch the reactions,” she says. “It was timely.”
Dark also did a lot of research about women donating land and land preservation. “They were not strongly attached to landowning like men,” she explains, “and didn’t have control of land until the beginning of the 20th century, but they had the urge to protect it.” She cites Roxanne Quimby, the cofounder of Burt’s Bees, who bought land all over the United States, particularly in Maine, and donated over 87,000 acres to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument established in 2016.
Dunow calls Fellowship Point “a 19th-century novel whose twists and turns would make Charles Dickens blush—an old-fashioned story but very contemporary in themes and concerns,” while Dark tells me she loves 19th-century novels and wanted to write one but make it modern.
The idea of modern doesn’t follow when I ask for her email.
She laughs. “I’m one of three people who still has AOL,” she says. “It’s a badge of honor!”