A naïve prep school student in Maine falls under the sway of a fanatical classmate

There’s a long history of novels where a character’s moral education overlaps with their formal education – where applying oneself to learning in the traditional sense dovetails with a process of knowing oneself better, sometimes to catastrophic effect. It’s a description that could apply to novels as nonsense in tone as John Knowles’s “A Separate Peace” and Emily M. Danforth’s “Plain Bad Heroines”; it doesn’t take too much work to work Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” into this group as well.

With her new novel “The World Cannot Give,” Tara Isabella Burton has written her own entry into this particular subgenre. Readers of Burton’s previous novel “Social Creature” – about a friendship between two young women in New York City that takes a turn for the Highsmithian – will find some thematic overlap here, including characters debating grand questions of faith, morality and people’s responsibilities to one another. Between the two novels, Burton published a work of nonfiction, “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World.” In this book, too, both Burton and her characters grapple with her with questions of right and wrong, of tradition, devotion and rebellion. Some of the questions reckoned with here are timeless; others are all too contemporary.

At the center of “The World Cannot Give” is Laura Stearns, a student at a fictional Maine prep school, St. Dunstan’s Academy. It’s an institution with a long and storied history, and one which she’s become fixed on since long before she began attending it. While there, she meets and falls under the sway of Virginia Strauss, who leads the school’s choir and speaks regularly about her own religious devotion and her penchant for intense exercise. There’s something more than a little ascetic about Virginia’s actions, but her magnetic personality makes it hard for Laura to see that her approach to life has a host of unhealthy aspects.

Laura and Virginia bond over their shared fondness for a writer named Sebastian James, who attended the same school decades earlier and famously fled one night to go fight in the Spanish Civil War, where he was killed in combat. As we learn later on, young Sebastian was fighting on the Francoist side. “I know people don’t like the Franco thing,” Laura tells Virginia early on. “I mean, he wasn’t a fascist or anything,” she adds. For Virginia, Sebastian “was a mystic” and “was on the side of transcendence” – and, of course, Sebastian isn’t in a position to confirm or deny either side of the argument.

When the novel opens, Virginia – dedicated to tradition, religion and the ecstatic – is at odds with a fellow student named Isobel Zhao, whose perspective is diametrically opposed. (When the reader first encounters Isobel, it’s through her work de ella to change campus life via a “Campaign to Abolish Mandatory Evensong.”) Virginia also finds herself clashing with Reverend Tipton, the young progressive who recently took over as the school’s chaplain.

Here, too, matters of faith come into play – it seems significant that Tipton’s doctoral thesis was written about “the Pelagian heresy,” which grapples with questions of original sin and whether or not humans can achieve a perfect state on their own. That Strauss hopes to be baptized – and would like for Tipton to be the one to do it – makes that connection even more fraught.

Virginia, it’s very clear, is ambitious, both in terms of career goals and future educational goals. The dynamic that Burton establishes between Laura and Virginia feels almost tactile – Virginia’s magnetism and conviction meshing perfectly with Laura’s agreeability and idealism. But this is also a novel about Laura figuring out who she truly is. Through Virginia’s increasingly hostile behavior toward Reverend Tipton and her increasingly reactionary language de ella, Burton shows the gulf between Virginia as she is and the idealized image of her that Laura clings to de ella.

For all that this is a novel that explores timeless themes, it’s also one that features some very contemporary moments, including subplots about revenge porn, online influencers and catfishing; and a few mentions of a student-led campaign for the school to part ways with a statue of a politically fraught figure. Eventually, the conflicts take an ominous turn, in a scene that makes logistical sense but loses some of its emotional weight by having certain significant events take place offscreen.

The bulk of “The World Cannot Give,” though, has the power to haunt. It’s often gripping, and the emotional and moral ramifications of decisions its characters must make are never shortchanged. It’s also surprisingly funny when it has to be – the choir’s rival, for instance, is an a cappella group called the Dewey Decibel System – which helps to offset the headier elements. It’s a welcome second novel for Burton, and a thematically rich work with plenty of power to thrill.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of three books: “Political Sign,” “Reel” and “Transitory.” He has reviewed books for the New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.


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