Dennis McFarland



The older Owen siblings—Ellen and Morris—long ago left behind their gracious family home in Alabama in favor of the northeast. But when they learn that their wayward baby sister Bonnie has moved back into the old place with her new husband, a local evangelical preacher, they head home to perform a rescue. Upon their arrival, they find Bonnie reformed, and pregnant. But she hasn’t yet broken the news to her husband that her brother Morris is gay, and the preacher soon begins a campaign to rescue Morris.

With tremendous insight and empathy, Dennis McFarland “turns a comic showdown between New England skeptics and Bible Belt fundamentalists into an eloquent mediation on the many meanings of faith." (The Washington Post)

Praise for Letter from Point Clear

“Addictively readable . . . [McFarland] is a master satirist, subtle and unerring in his portrait of contemporary life.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“An emotionally rich family drama propelled by vivid characters and lovely writing... This is not a novel for readers who like endings neatly resolved. Consider it more an unsolved emotional mystery: no crime, no gimmicks, but chock-full of lovely clues.” —USA Today

“Dennis McFarland’s forte is family psyche, a dynamic masterfully exploited in Letter From Point Clear.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Dennis McFarland again displays his knack for eloquent subtlety. Letter From Point Clear takes on religion, family dysfunction and gay marriage, among other issues, but not in a didactic way … Much as in the graceful fiction of Anne Tyler, Letter from Point Clear explores the ways in which the characters come to terms with their lives instead of embarking on new ones.” —Los Angeles Times

“A beautiful work, one of those novels that is constantly aware of the surrounding natural world. Letter From Point Clear likely will draw the praise the five previous ones did, and deserves it.” —Chicago Sun Times

“I was already a fan of Dennis McFarland, so I’m happy to report that Letter from Point Clear is his best, most moving book so far. His characters, members of a privileged yet very poignant clan, surprised me again and again by the ways in which they won my heart. I know how trite it sounds to say that their story made me laugh and cry (and often), but that’s the delightful truth.” –Julia Glass, author of Three Junes and The Whole World Over

“[Letter from Point Clear] offers something for everyone, is refreshing to read and, although it satisfies at the end, doesn’t tidy up all the loose ends in a nice package.” –Tampa Tribune

“A beautiful work, one of those novels that are constantly aware of the surrounding natural world.” –Louisville Courier-Journal

“It is almost as if McFarland searched beneath the stereotypes and found the reality—the people upon whom the stereotypes had been modeled. And then, he took those same characters and helped them to see clearly … Through Letter from Point Clear, Dennis McFarland brings the stereotypical South to light. So, here it is. A man from Massachusetts writes a book about Alabama, including all the stereotypes that so often frustrate and anger us, and we can see ourselves more clearly, and it is good.” –Anniston Star

“Portraying each conversation and every encounter as an emotional minefield, McFarland is at the peak of his psychological prowess.” –Booklist

Full reviews

SHE’S MARRYING A WHAT? Two bright, urbane siblings rush to save their sister from a fundamentalist fate

In Letter from Point Clear (Holt) Dennis McFarland conjures the love, need, discomfort, resentment, and warmth shared among grown siblings. His Owen clan, two sisters and a brother, are clever and appealing, and they remind you of J. D. Salinger’s famous (fictional) Glass family. Like Salinger’s Franny, Zooey, and Seymour, the Owens are witty, they have unusual depth, and they are quite screwed up. Of course, in keeping with the cultural transformations of the last four decades, the Owenses are not nearly so well educated as the Glasses. On the upside, they are not nearly so morose: Where Salinger was melancholy, McFarland is highly amused. Youngest sister Bonnie, a struggling New York actress, has returned home to Point Clear, Alabama, originally to care for the family’s ailing father and then, after he dies, to marry an impenetrably unironic young evangelist preacher. Her brother, Morris, who’s gay, and sister Ellen, who’s sophisticated, are properly horrified and head down South to save her from this worst of American fates. But who is saving whom becomes the question at the center of the story. McFarland, who has five previous novels that I now intend to obtain, is addictively readable without for a moment being simple. He is a master satirist, subtle and unerring in his portrait of contemporary life. What he is doing, his deliciously sharp and humorous vision, is becoming ever more rare in our national fiction, which, like the hardy evangelist, suffers these days from an overload of sincerity and high principles. But it is McFarland’s laughing scalpel that cuts deeper, and so comes closer to touching the soul.  --Vince Passaro (O, the Oprah Magazine, August 2007)



Preachers in literature -- from Arthur Dimmesdale to Elmer Gantry -- tend to be a sanctimonious, hypocritical lot who do not practice what they sermonize. At first blush, the foil in Dennis McFarland's new novel, Letter from Point Clear-- a charismatic evangelical minister -- seems straight out of the feet-of-clay seminary. But, as he has amply demonstrated in his five previous novels, McFarland's attitude toward even his most flawed characters is nuanced and compassionate.

Brother and sister Morris and Ellen Owen have long ago escaped from their gloomy childhood in Point Clear, Ala., dominated by their "drunken, narcissistic" father, Roy. They have settled in orderly New England with loyal spouses and prosperous careers, far away from the South's racism, homophobia and "ignorant mean-spirited people."

Their complacency is knocked sideways when a letter arrives from their younger sister Bonnie, an out-of-work, overmedicated actress who has moved back to the dilapidated family manse after Roy's death. Bonnie announces her quickie marriage to a man she met on the beach who "said he was a preacher," with the preposterous name of Pastor Vandorpe. He's head of a booming church that has just launched "a big fund-raising campaign" for a mall-sized Christ Center. Bonnie gushes, "I felt that when he looked at me he saw me."

Ellen and Morris suspect that Pastor has indeed seen Bonnie all too clearly -- a "train wreck" with a million-dollar beachside house and a trust fund. Airplane tickets back to Point Clear are booked, bags are packed.
But when they meet the man of God in the flesh, Ellen and Morris are unnerved by . . . well, by his charisma. Boyishly handsome with "plundering midnight blue eyes," he espouses his faith with disarming sincerity and conviction. He chows down on the old family cook's blackberry pie and cinnamon mashed potatoes with endearing gusto. The siblings have to admit that Bonnie, now three months pregnant, has never seemed so happy -- or so sober.

Ironically, Pastor proves to be more judgmental of his new in-laws than they are of him. He tries to save Morris from "the sin of homosexuality" by inviting an ex-gay parishioner for dinner to deliver an inspirational chat. The plan backfires, of course, leaving Pastor chastened. Later, at a beach picnic, when Morris accuses him of misusing his pulpit to get "the last word," Pastor, in a wonderfully Cheeveresque moment, tackles him face first into the sand.

By the end of their visit to Point Clear, the members of the newly minted Owen-Vandorpe clan find their belief (or lack of belief) in Pastor's words "all shook up." In Letter from Point Clear, McFarland turns a comic showdown between New England skeptics and Bible Belt fundamentalists into an eloquent meditation on the many meanings of faith.  --Caroline Preston (Washington Post, Sunday, August 26, 2007)

A NOVEL OF NUANCED EMOTIONAL COMPLEXITY, with a refreshing emphasis on character rather than on post-modern angst. Once again McFarland (Prince Edward, 2004, etc.) anatomizes family dynamics, this time through three adult siblings. Morris Owen and his sister Ellen have tried to escape their southern past first by attending boarding school in New England and later by moving to the Cape. Their wayward younger sister Bonnie, who's tried a number of occupations and failed at all of them, has recently moved back to the manse in Alabama after the death of the family's patriarch. The novel begins with a letter Bonnie has sent to Morris and Ellen informing them that she's recently-and somewhat secretively-married a charismatic evangelical preacher, Pastor (his given name) Vandorpe, so the two elder siblings set out to visit their old home and take the measure of Bonnie's new husband. This is no skewer-the-fundamentalist screed, however, for Pastor is presented as a committed yet questioning Christian, both bewildered and bewitched by Morris's homosexuality. While at one level Pastor wants to "save" Morris, at another he's learning about his own patronizing attitudes. Morris is both learned and witty, and he has little tolerance for Pastor's evangelism, but he's also fascinated by Pastor's genuineness and sincerity, values far removed from his own cynicism. Meanwhile, Bonnie is caught in the middle, sympathetic both to her siblings' questioning (which begins to move her away from her new husband) and to Pastor's deep faith (which she occasionally runs afoul of). The novel builds up to a mystical vision that Pastor experiences-an enigmatic visitation of Jesus-that tests everyone. A work to be savored: McFarland knows how to put words together in guileful and bewitching ways.  –Kirkus Reviews (starred review, June, 2007)


CLOSE TO HOME Reunited in the place where they grew up, three siblings struggle over identity and faith

In five previous novels, Dennis McFarland has brought his compassionate sense of the world to the precisely rendered interiors of domestic realism. His characters are full-bodied in part because of the losses they've endured: a brother's suicide, a young father's murder on a Boston street. An authorial mood of graceful endurance accompanies such tragedies, as though the question is not whether bad news will happen, but how best to grab ahold of the ground when the fall presents itself. God is not mocked in McFarland's fiction, but neither is he wholly absent -- somewhere in each cave of longing is always a door.

"Letter From Point Clear" unfolds in the year after the death of a wealthy Southern patriarch; his three adult children have long since left the Alabama coastal town where they grew up for lives and families in the East. Their mother died giving birth to the youngest, Bonnie, and all three offspring have subsequently formed intricate relationships with one another to fill that gap -- and to buffer themselves against the rough sorrows of life with an alcoholic father. Ellen, a Cambridge poet in her mid-40s and the eldest of the Owen children, seems to have taken their father's death the hardest; she's asked her kindly husband, Dan, for a brief separation and retreated to Wellfleet while their son is at camp. Morris, a few years younger, is the emotional fulcrum of the novel. A gay literature professor who's recently married his partner of 14 years, he adores Ellen's boy, Willie; he's sharp and honest enough to tell each sister what he thinks, sometimes ahead of good sense. All of the Owens are financially independent -- their money goes back far enough generationally that its source is never mentioned -- and Morris doesn't need to work; that he does is evidence of the dutiful, sometimes passionate man behind the irreverent (sometimes caustic) facade. Bonnie is the wild child who elected to stay in Point Clear upon their father's death. A decade of acting in New York failed to bring her the success she sought, though she brought her talent for high drama back home to Alabama; lately, she's been redecorating the old manse, armed with a prescription for Ativan and a half-read copy of "The Power and the Glory." Ellen and Morris attend to their younger sister with either a furrowed brow or a raised eyebrow -- she's too hysterical for them to take seriously, and too dear for them not to. When a letter for Ellen arrives announcing Bonnie's hip-shot marriage to an evangelical preacher, the Owen elders board a plane for Alabama -- over-involvement being one of the obvious legacies of an unhappy family.

That's the ballast of "Letter From Point Clear," the majority of which takes place on the Alabama coast, where Bonnie has found a younger, charismatic man whose parents named him Pastor even before the holy spirit claimed him. With his unequivocal warmth and equally fierce certainty of God's plan, Pastor represents the antithesis of Bonnie's prior life, though she's conscious of having traded one dependency for another: "What she liked most about the God-as-a-drug idea was that you couldn't run out of it." Fund-raising for a mall-like complex for his Church of the Blessed Hunger, Pastor calls his new wife "Bonnie girl" and is thrilled to welcome her siblings, lost to the East, back into the flock -- never mind that he's the one living in their childhood home. The crucial detail that Bonnie has neglected to tell Pastor, it soon becomes clear, is that her adored older brother is married to a man.

So the placement at the dinner table goes something like this: born-again preacher, Pastor's tacky-but-well-intentioned parents, high-strung (and newly pregnant) Bonnie, world-weary, still-grieving Ellen, and lightning-rod Morris (who corrects his sisters' grammar and makes gay-lifestyle jokes at Pastor's expense). At first glance, the conflict between Morris's sexual preference and Pastor's religious zealotry may not seem enough on which to hang a novel, but McFarland uses it to create a greater tableau about class, religion, and family ties and chains. His authorial point of view moves seamlessly among his central characters, so that Ellen's vaguely eerie unhappiness, for instance, is as real as Bonnie's tremulous excursion into her new life. One of the most well-drawn characters of the novel is Macy, the cook and caretaker who has lived at Point Clear for decades, tending to the Owens' father through his solitary years, now trying to juggle the emotional and culinary needs of the recent arrivals. With her lemon meringue pie and cafeteria-style Catholicism, she exhibits more common sense than the lot of them together.

If "Letter From Point Clear" has a story-line weakness, it's that the actual collision of forces presented in this tableau -- Pastor's moral proselytizing and Morris's wry stance of holding firm -- seems a bit too civil. Even when Pastor calls a prayer group to join hands over his new brother-in-law's homosexuality, Morris and Ellen manage to stay put, roll their eyes, and at least fake the pleasantries of domestic harmony. No doors slammed, no voices raised, no midnight exits to the airport. Given the flagrant opposition between these two camps, it's hard to believe -- even among Southerners -- that the conversation would stay this genteel.

But the novel goes back on course with McFarland's assumption of Pastor's point of view -- a task he accomplishes beautifully, from the young preacher's emotional insecurities to his wild misfire of aggression at the beach one day. The emotional leaps (and leaps of faith) here are subtle but crucial: Morris, whose arsenal of protective irony is also his failing, finds a mercy he didn't know he possessed when he goes up against his nemesis. Such victories are slow-gained and even slower to reveal themselves: "[Morris] knew that in the near and distant future, he would review this scene and feel heartbroken at not having been somehow more effective in it, and at not being able, from that future vantage, to revise it." Such revisions belong to novelists, of course, who possess the omniscience that real life sorely lacks. With its finely evoked tableaus from Wellfleet to the Alabama coast, "Letter From Point Clear" is a gratifying, emotionally resonant novel -- its heart and longing steeped in the Old South, its sensibility years and miles beyond.  --Gail Caldwell (Boston Sunday Globe, August 12, 2007)

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