There are at least two compelling books stuffed into Tara Isabella Burton’s The World Cannot Give. If the author had committed to one of them, the result may have been more satisfying than the novel we have, which seesaws uneasily between them.
The first of the books is the one the promotional copy highlights: a thriller set at an exclusive Maine boarding school. Arriving at St. Dunstan’s Academy as a breathless junior, obsessed with a jazz-age author who wrote a cult classic set at the school and then died young, Laura falls into the orbit of goth ice queen Virginia, who imperiously leads the school’s church choir. Taking Laura’s nostalgic tendency to an extreme, Virginia actively disdains the school’s current students. Laura grows closer to Virginia, even as the latter makes enemies both outside and, ultimately, inside her cherished choir.
Another book tells the story of Virginia as a human being — the story that surprises us by coming to the fore in the book’s second half, seemingly defusing the threat posed by Virginia as a seductive villain. The World Cannot Give is at its most compelling when Virginia allows herself to be vulnerable, forming a trusting relationship with Laura and taking risks with her personal attachments. When that goes awry, though, Virginia snaps back into her shell and the plot resumes its unexceptional churn.
It’s not that Virginia’s change of heart is implausible, it’s that once she’s gone, we’re left alone with Laura — who remains a conveniently blank cipher. It’s Laura, more than anyone, we need to understand, but Burton’s central character keeps her focus so resolutely to the exterior that we’re barely given a sense of who Laura is. We certainly get that she’s infatuated with Virginia, but Burton seems to think we’d be bored by any substantive consideration of why.
Laura seems to be sexually attracted to Virginia, yet her desires are held at a distant remove. The reasons for that seem to have less to do with the character’s confusion or hesitation than with the author’s ironclad decision to keep Laura an observer, a convenient proxy for the reader and just as unable to affect the course of events. At that point, why not dispense with Laura altogether and simply make it Virginia’s story?
Laura has a bit of an epiphany at the book’s end, but that’s little more than a coda, shedding no new light on the novel’s events or characters. Meanwhile, Burton throws another major character under the bus: Bonnie, Laura’s sweetly lovesick roommate, whose career as a social media influencer implausibly consumes both her brains and her heart.
The audiobook, narrated by Sarah Beth Pfeifer, only amplifies the novel’s shortcomings. Pfeifer spends most of the 11-hour running time in Laura’s cringing tone, making every statement sound like a question. The performance is, in that sense, authentic to the character, but it only serves to remind us of how little reason the author has given us to invest in Laura. Most of the other teachers and students at the school are mentioned only glancingly, a choice presumably intended as a reflection of Laura’s tunnel vision but one that forces a brief sketch of the school’s geography and history to pull the weight of what, in another telling, might have been a fully realized setting.
The World Cannot Give; unfortunately, neither could I.