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You should take what ‘The World Cannot Give’

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As someone who has been reviewing books for a long time, I’ve developed a pretty good curatorial sense with regard to my choices. The reality is that there are just too darned many books out there – there’s no hope of me reading them all. And so, I’ve gradually found a selection system that works for me.

But there’s no such thing as a perfect system.

And so, every once in a while, I find myself with a book that almost fell through the cracks. Usually, it’s a style or genre that I don’t ordinarily indulge in. For whatever reason, the title was never on my radar until one voice – usually a fellow critic or blogger whose opinions I respected – pushed it into my attention. Many times, that book still isn’t for me.

But sometimes, I get Tara Isabella Burton’s “The World Cannot Give” (Simon & Schuster, $27.49).

Set in an isolated Maine prep school, this is a story about the many shapes and flavors of fervor. It is a tale about the choices we make, about how we allow ourselves to be consumed by the outside influences that serve as flames to our moths. It is about sexuality and religion and the devotion that springs from them both.

It is also – if you’ll forgive the light blasphemy – one hell of a read.

Laura Stearns is a teenaged girl living in Nevada. She’s smart, but she doesn’t really fit into the fabric of her high school experience. Her dream is to attend St. Dunstan’s Academy, a prep school in Maine that happens to have as its most famous alum a young man named Sebastian Webster, who died as a teenager, but not before leaving behind the manuscript for what would become “All Before Them,” a novel about his school experience that would go on to inspire and enrapture generations of young readers.

And her dream is coming true.

Laura finds herself on the bucolic campus, her novel-driven familiarity still accurate all these decades later. Her hope – her deepest desire – is to find the same sort of passions for herself that run so deeply through Webster’s pages.

At first, Laura struggles to find her bearings. Her roommate Bonnie is a budding social media influencer; nice enough, but the two have little in common. It is only when she encounters the willful and charismatic Virginia Strauss that she starts to believe she’s found what she seeks. Virginia is the leader of the school’s choir, ruling over it with a demanding nature and an ironclad (albeit relatively new) faith.

It's not long before Laura is swept up in the maelstrom that surrounds Virginia. She quickly offers up her devotion, just as the other choir members have, all of them mesmerized into a single-minded devotion to Virginia and her passion. Love – in many forms – is both omnipresent and ever-compicated.

But it’s a fine line between passion and fanaticism – a line that only gets blurrier as Laura’s connection to Virginia deepens. And yet, Laura has decided that Virginia shall be her guide in this ongoing quest for meaning, and so even as circumstances grow stranger and more fraught – and more dangerous – Laura remains by her side, even as the walls start to crumble.

My affinity for coming-of-age stories is well-documented, and “The World Cannot Give” is very much that. The willingness of the young to subsume themselves within the fires set by another – it’s familiar. We’ve all been there, looking up to a peer or near-peer so much as to overlook their flaws. So it is with Laura, whose search for identity leads her toward relinquishing her individuality. Adolescence is rife with those temptations, rendered thoughtfully and evocatively by Burton. And when we introduce love into the equation, well … things only grow more complicated, regardless of whether that love is sincere or weaponized.

(I’ll concede that I – a middle-aged man – am not necessarily the target audience for this book. Yet one could argue that Burton’s ability to make this tale resonate with me speaks to a universality that belies the seeming narrowness of focus. Look, I’m not one to casually wander into books about teen girls in choir/cults at old-money prep schools dealing with love (queer or otherwise) and its consequences, but here we are.)

There’s a tendency to try and describe books in the context of other books; the tagline I kept seeing for this one was “‘The Girls’ meets ‘Fight Club’” – not a terrible comparison, to be sure, and certainly one that pushed me the rest of the way toward it. But while reading, I kept thinking of a different book – Robert Cormier’s “The Chocolate War,” a book that offers its own look at the damaging potentialities at play when prep school meets cult of personality. Perhaps the similarities are only surface-level, but the synaptic connections I made were undeniable.

While there were a few reasons that I started the book, the reason that I stayed was Burton. Combining writerly skill with narrative depth isn’t something that everyone can do – there are plenty of stylists I admire who can’t tell a story, and plenty of gifted storytellers whose prose is plain – but Burton makes it all seem easy. We glide through the story, moments of intimacy and excitement treated with equal respect. It is truthful, delicate work.

I didn’t know what I was getting when I picked up “The World Cannot Give.” As it turns out, what I got was my biggest literary surprise of the year thus far.

Last modified on Wednesday, 02 March 2022 06:28

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