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The World Cannot Give

About The Book

The Secret History meets The Price of Salt” (Vogue) in this “equal parts dangerous and delicious” (Entertainment Weekly) novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence among the members of a cultic chapel choir at a Maine boarding school—and the ambitious, terrifyingly charismatic girl that rules over them.

When shy, sensitive Laura Stearns arrives at St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine, she dreams that life there will echo her favorite novel, All Before Them, the sole surviving piece of writing by Byronic “prep school prophet” (and St. Dunstan’s alum) Sebastian Webster, who died at nineteen, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. She soon finds the intensity she is looking for among the insular, Webster-worshipping members of the school’s chapel choir, which is presided over by the charismatic, neurotic, overachiever Virginia Strauss. Virginia is as fanatical about her newfound Christian faith as she is about the miles she runs every morning before dawn. She expects nothing short of perfection from herself—and from the member of the choir.

Virginia inducts the besotted Laura into a world of transcendent music and arcane ritual, illicit cliff-diving and midnight crypt visits: a world that, like Webster’s novels, finally seems to Laura to be full of meaning. But when a new school chaplain challenges Virginia’s hold on the “family” she has created, and Virginia’s efforts to wield her power become increasingly dangerous, Laura must decide how far she will let her devotion to Virginia go.

The World Cannot Give is a “hypnotic and intense” (Shondaland) meditation on the power, and danger, of wanting more from the world.


Chapter 1 1

She cries at poems when the slant rhymes surprise you. She cries at old movies where people are in love but can’t acknowledge it for self-abnegatingly heroic reasons, like being married or having to lead the French Resistance, and she cries at the lonely light of early mornings. She cries when she pieces together the etymologies of words, and she cries when people sing the exact right harmony and their voices lattice so that she hears only one perfect, unearthly sound.

Laura even cried in the middle of History, once, the time they were reading about how people in the Middle Ages who made art depicted human beings as ordinary-size, but angels as impossibly big, like houses or towers, and the textbook author said it was because people in the Middle Ages really did see angels all around them—not scientifically, sure, but psychologically—and the notion that once upon a time a person could just look around and see angels, everywhere, struck Laura as so impossibly beautiful that she erupted into weeping and then had to lie and tell everyone it was menstrual cramps, because as soft and susceptible as Laura Stearns is, even she knows that in the real world, you can’t go around crying about angels unless you want people to think you’re one of those nuts who stand outside the Bellagio with picket signs that say The End Is Near.

It’s not that Laura doesn’t know she’s too sensitive. She knows her parents, her teachers, her school counselor all call her young for her age. (Laura is sixteen. She feels so old.)

One day, they tell her, she will have to develop that necessary carapace that other people seem to be born with by default, the one that means things no longer make you cry.

Only then, Laura thinks, she wouldn’t love things so deeply. She wouldn’t love Sebastian Webster the way she does. She doesn’t know who she is, not loving him.

Sebastian Oliver Webster knew things. He understood about angels, about heroes, about lattices of voices. He understood about beauty and meaning, and about World-History, which he always capitalizes. He understood about green morning light, and also about slant rhymes—All Before Them is full of them, hidden in his prose—and every time Laura rereads it she starts crying on page seventeen and doesn’t stop until she’s slammed it shut. Laura has read All Before Them fifteen times.

It’s the ending that gets her.

It’s dusk, late in term time. A spring storm’s blowing in along the coast. It’s 1936. Robert Lawrence—he’s the character Webster based on himself—walks into the St. Dunstan’s chapel. He tries to pray.

Most of the plot is resolved by this point. Gus has already had his affair with his headmaster’s wife; the boys have all dared each other to jump off Farnham Cliff. And Robert Lawrence has already beaten up poor Shrimpy Masterson in the Falmouth woods.

It’s not that Robert’s a bad person. Laura always has trouble explaining this part. It’s just that Robert wants so much, and so deeply, and more than anything Robert wants this experience he calls a shipwreck of the soul, even though Webster never explains exactly what this means.

Laura isn’t sure what it means, either, although the words together make her heart seize, but, anyway, it’s the only thing Robert wants, and so it’s all Robert can’t have.

Not that he doesn’t search. He tries drugs, religion, sex. He falls in love with this townie named Peggy. He breaks Shrimpy Masterson’s nose in the woods. Laura has to skip that scene whenever she rereads it, because it hurts too much to get through.

But anyway, anyway, the ending. It’s dusk; it’s 1936; the sky is splitting open. Robert’s still trapped in what Webster keeps calling the whole sclerotic modern world, where nothing means anything, where everything Great or Pure or World-Historical (Webster’s styling; only now Laura uses it too) that was ever going to happen has happened already, long ago, where nobody’s soul ever gets dashed on rocks.

And Robert—he’s sitting there in the chapel, his head in his hands, looking up at this stained glass mosaic of the Virgin Mary as the Stella Maris, her lantern aloft like she’s some kind of lighthouse, but anyway, Robert’s staring up at her, aching to feel it, incapable of feeling it, and then all of a sudden he hears little Shrimpy Masterson sing.

Webster leaves this part ambiguous. That’s his genius. He doesn’t tell us if Robert finds God, or if he does what kind of god he finds, or whether the thing that finally breaks Robert open is supposed to be Shrimpy himself, or the sound of the Magnificat, or the sight of the storm-split sky darkening through Mary’s lantern, but anyway, anyway, Robert experiences, at last, the shipwreck of the soul he’s spent the whole book looking for.

Finally, Robert gets it.

He falls to his knees.

It came to him, at last, Webster writes, the truth he had always known, within himself, unvoiced. He realized—and Laura is convinced that this is the single most beautiful phrase in the English language—the rocks and the harbor are one.

Two pages later Robert sets off on a stolen boat into the sunrise, and even though Webster doesn’t tell us what happens to him Laura likes to imagine that he ends up how Webster ended up in real life: stealing away from St. Dunstan’s one May midnight in 1937, getting baptized by some Irish Catholic priest in Boston; talking his way into a berth on a transatlantic freighter to go fight in the Spanish Civil War, dying on a battlefield six months later, leaving behind nothing but a handwritten manuscript of such wild-eyed genius that, eighty years later, Laura feels sure he is the only person in the world who could ever understand her.

Not that Laura experienced anything she could confidently describe as a shipwreck of the soul, nor does she know, exactly, how she’ll be able to tell when she does. She knows only that she, like Robert Lawrence, wants to have one more than anything in the world, and that the closest she’s ever gotten is reading All Before Them for the very first time.

Laura wonders often about what Sebastian Webster’s shipwreck was like. She wonders whether it came quickly, like a thunderclap, or gradually, like dawn. She wonders whether once it came, he wrote the whole novel, in a single feverish week, ablaze with certainty, or whether he wrestled over every word, the way Laura wrestles whenever she tries to explain herself to the people that she knows.

She wonders whether he knew, running off from St. Dunstan’s under the cover of moonlight, that he was doomed to die on the battlefield, or whether it came as a shock to him when some Spanish soldier bayoneted him in the back. She wonders if you can have a shipwreck of the soul in a place like Henderson, Nevada, or in a time like the present, or if you have to be lucky enough to live in a place and a time where people are fighting World-Historical battles you can die in. She wonders if you can have a shipwreck without dying.

Maybe, she thinks, once you have one, death doesn’t scare you, anymore.

Laura likes to think she and Webster would have been friends.

If she had only been there, with him, back then, at St. Dunstan’s (oh, if only she’d been a boy!)—she’d know exactly what to say to him. She has the whole scene in her head. They’d sit, together—maybe at Farnham Cliff, just like Robert’s always doing with Gus, gazing out over the rocky coastline, counting the mother-of-pearl oysters that wash up with the wreckage of vanquished boats.

Maybe they wouldn’t even have to talk. Maybe he’d just take her hand, and press it to his lips, and they would watch the moonlight overflow onto the black water, and he would simply understand, by virtue of his mystic shipwrecked soul, all those things Laura never has words for.

But Sebastian Webster is dead. What’s left of him is buried in the crypt under the St. Dunstan’s chapel, where the spires cast their shadows toward the sea, where the student body sings Evensong every Friday night, just like they did in Webster’s day.

They’ve admitted girls since the sixties.

That’s why Laura’s heading there right now.

Laura has been awake for twenty-four hours. She has flown from Las Vegas to New York, and then from New York to Boston. Her suitcase is heavier than she is. She has taken the train from Boston to Portland, shivering with glory, shuddering, texting her parents every few hours just like she promised, because although after months of deliberation they have at last agreed to let her go to St. Dunstan’s, she knows they expect her to get lost in baggage claim and call them, begging to let her come home and spend junior year at Green Valley High after all. She has taken the bus from Portland to Weymouth, reciting the names of the dormitories to herself, because if she forgets just one St. Dunstan’s will disappear.

Laura is standing at Weymouth’s bus stop, which is really just a lamppost, waiting for the cab that will take her to campus, three miles north along the coast. Laura’s heart is a hummingbird.

Laura isn’t even tired. Laura can’t stop smiling. It is the first day of Michaelmas term.

Laura’s parents have reminded her—so many times—that St. Dunstan’s is a real school, populated by real people, with real classes and real athletics and real college matriculation statistics. Even at St. Dunstan’s (they have reminded her) she will not find Sebastian Webster himself, with his hollow cheeks and his dark hair slicked back high on his forehead and his fingertips striated with ink, crossing Devonshire Quad in the salt-tinged morning mist. Even at St. Dunstan’s (Laura knows this part by heart) she will have to study hard, and read assiduously; she’ll finally have to enroll in extracurriculars. She might even have to make some friends.

Laura knows all this. She can’t bring herself to believe it. Deep down, Laura knows that St. Dunstan’s can’t possibly belong to the real world, to that sclerotic modern world Robert Lawrence despises.

After all, Laura has seen the pictures.

God, she has spent so many hours googling pictures!

She has seen how the fog still hangs dark and thick on Farnham Cliff, where a memorial statue to Sebastian Webster now stands. She has seen the chapel: its stark spires, its lighthouse Madonna illuminated by the riotous sunset reds, Sebastian Webster’s bones interred below. She has watched and rewatched and paused and gasped and started up again so many videos of the choir singing Evensong at chapel, the way they do every Friday night. Surely, Laura thinks, nobody could sing Evensong at chapel every Friday night without it shipwrecking your soul, at least a little.

She has spent all summer wondering about the people she’ll find there. She wonders if anyone loves Webster like she does; whether anyone requested—as she did—a room in Desmond Hall, because that is where Webster wrote and slept and wrote, back when Desmond was a dorm for boys. She knows they will be smart, probably much smarter than she is—God, she hopes they are a million times smarter than she is, so long as they’re patient enough and willing to tell her what to read next, and what to think about it, and what it all means.

Her roommate in Desmond is a girl from outside New York City called Bonnie di Angelis. She has been at St. Dunstan’s for two years already. This makes Laura nervous. Maybe Bonnie is used to the spires, and the salt fog, and the sight of the black water. Maybe Laura will seem childish. Lots of people find Laura childish.

Laura wonders if she should hide her copy of All Before Them in her suitcase, instead of carrying it, face forward, against her chest. Maybe turning up with a copy of All Before Them in your arms is a thing only freshmen do.

Laura breathes in the Weymouth air. She scans the town—the bobbing fishing boats at the dock, all the wooden houses with their flaking paint and nautical colors, the Wayfarer Hotel with its big glass windows revealing its overstuffed Victorian living room.

Laura’s lips taste like salt.

Laura cranes her neck all through the drive. Twice she asks the driver to slow down so that she can take it in more reverentially: the narrow country road that snakes along the coastal path, with woods on one side and a sheer cliff drop along the other. She wants to ask him to stop, once they get close to Farnham Cliff, so she can see the Webster statue face-to-face.

She doesn’t dare.

Then the car turns inland.

It’s all here. Here is the old chapel, fog clinging to its spires like smoke; here is Carbonell Library with its little dome, across the quadrangle from the sprawling red brick of Mountbatten Hall, where the offices and classrooms are, trellised with leaves that have turned red, too, giving the whole building the look of a bonfire. Here are the dorms—Desmond and Lyndhurst and Latimer for the girls; Morris and Unger and Cranmer for the boys. Here is Jarvis Lighthouse, in the distance: half caved in.

Laura tries to hide her tears from her Uber driver, a middle-aged man with a baseball cap and an earring; he beams at her in the rearview mirror.

He tells her not to worry. He’s driven hundreds of students just like her up to the academy over the years. More than a few have cried.

Homesickness. It passes. By summer she’ll be crying when she leaves.

“I’m not homesick,” Laura says. She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.

She has been homesick, all her life, for here.

Laura registers at Mountbatten. She gets her room key. She breaks her suitcase handle. She lugs it by the zipper all the way across Devonshire Quadrangle. She almost drops her book.

She drags her suitcase up three flights of stairs. She kicks it down the hallway. She stands, breathless, in front of room 312, where STEARNS/DI ANGELIS is emblazoned by the door.

DI ANGELIS is decorated already with gel-pen flowers and a curlicue over both I’s.

Laura is deciding whether to knock or just push open the door when she hears a voice inside.

“Can it be?”

It is loud and high and nasal. Laura cracks the door open.

“Another year,” the voice goes on. “Another set of memories. Another ripening of the autumn leaves and of our hearts.”

Laura opens the door.

A blond girl in a rowing blazer is lounging on the bed by the window.

She is staring straight at Laura.

“The lessons we’ve learned here,” she goes on intently, “will shape us for the rest of our— Fuck!

She sits straight up.


Laura stands flummoxed on the threshold.

“Sorry,” says the blond girl, “I know. I know. Gross.” She beams and rolls her eyes at the same time. “But…” She winces. “It’s just…”

“You’re in the shot.”

Laura whirls around.

A scowling, scraggly girl with chunky pigtails is sitting cross-legged on Laura’s bed, next to the door, holding a phone. She’s filming. She glares at Laura.

“I…,” Laura fumbles.

“We’re almost done,” the blond girl says brightly. She turns back toward the girl on the bed. “Come on, Freddy, just one more. Please?”

“You said that an hour ago.”

Bonnie keeps smiling. Bonnie starts over.

“Another year. Another set of memories. Another ripening of the autumn leaves and of our hearts.”

She swoops across the bed, turning her face to the window.

“What we learn out there”—she gestures, grandly, toward the water—“will create the people we become, in here.” She folds her hands against her heart. “I can’t wait to share my journey of becoming with you all.” Her chin shoots up. “Cut!

“Was that too on the nose?” Laura doesn’t know which one of them she’s talking to. “I feel like that’s too on the nose.

“It’s straightforward,” the ugly girl says. “People like straightforward.”

Journey of becoming?” Bonnie wrinkles her nose. “It’s clunky. What do you think?”

“Me?” Laura is conscious that Freddy is still glowering at her.

“You’re impartial,” Bonnie says. “What do you think? Is journey of becoming too clunky?”

Laura hesitates. “It’s a little clunky.”

“Originally I was going to say bildungsroman,” Bonnie says, “but I feel like that’s maybe—I don’t know—pretentious? Like, I want it to be a little, like, literary, you know, I mean like smart, but not, like, obscure. I don’t want it to look like I’m trying too hard.”

“You are trying too hard.”

“She’s right, though.” Bonnie pouts. “It’s clunky. ‘Journey of becoming’Christ, what was I thinking?”


“What’s something better?” She fixes her eyes, unblinking, on Laura. “Like—a journey that changes you? But in English.”

“A pilgrimage?” Laura tries.

The girl’s face lights up. “Pilgrimage,” she says. “That’s good.”

Freddy snorts. “It’s not a pilgrimage if you don’t go anywhere.”

Bonnie ignores her.

“From the top,” she says.

“Don’t hate me,” says Bonnie when they finish. “I know. I know. It’s awful. We’re all supposed to be present, and in the moment, and, like, living for the ’gram.” She shrugs. “But my problem is that I never remember anything. I’m like a hummingbird.” This makes her trill. “I have to have a record or—” She sticks out her hand. “I’m Bonnie,” she says. “That’s Freddy. Barnes.” She grins. “My enabler.”

Freddy doesn’t acknowledge this.


“Oh, I know who you are,” says Bonnie brightly. “I Insta-stalked you over the summer. You’re from Vegas, right? Love that.”

“Actually, it’s about sixteen mi—”

“You’re really pretty. You have really full lips. Are those the real lines?”

Laura has never thought of herself as pretty. She is short and chubby and her hair is dishwater blond. “I think so.”

“You’re lucky. I have to draw mine in. My lips are like pencils. Freddy?”

Freddy hands her the phone. Bonnie scrolls through the photos.

“You see? You can barely even see them. And God, my arms.

“It’s the angle,” says Freddy. “Probably.”

Bonnie cocks her head at the video.

“Is it good enough, do you think?”

“I think you look beautiful.”

“You’re sweet.”

“Just put it on your Story,” Freddy says. “Then you won’t have to worry. By the time you hate it, it’ll be gone.”

Bonnie wrinkles her nose.

“But that’s the point,” she says. “I want something, you know, permanent. I know, I know, it’s trite. My boyfriend, Brad—well, he’s not really my boyfriend—anyway, he says it’s trite. But, like, I think there’s something beautiful, you know, in capturing, like, one perfect moment, but forever. Plus, it’s good for your career.”

Bonnie explains the whole thing. She has nine thousand followers on Instagram.

“Eight thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-six,” Freddy cuts in. “You lost a few yesterday.”

She has a deal, already, with this small clothing company that does this kind of preppy-tweedy-streetwear fusion look that’s getting really big. They send her free stuff, sometimes, so long as she posts herself wearing it on campus. It’s more authentic, showing someone wearing it on a real boarding school campus, even though St. Dunstan’s isn’t one of the really prestigious ones. It’s not that Bonnie wants to be an influencer, or anything like that. Influencing isn’t Bonnie’s passion. Bonnie wants to be an artist and do mixed-media stuff, or experimental interactive stuff, like that lady who sat naked staring at strangers for three minutes each, only in this day and age if you don’t have a fan base, nobody is willing to take a chance on you, or give you a book deal or a gallery show or anything, and you need twenty or thirty thousand followers to do that, and everybody loves the whole boarding school aesthetic, and besides, it’s a kind of art, too, isn’t it?

“When she gets twenty thousand,” Freddy says, “they’ll start paying her.”

“Not that I care,” Bonnie cuts her off. “I hate money.”

Laura keeps nodding, politely, hoping nobody will ask her to weigh in.

“I want to film a segment at Evensong,” Bonnie says. “People love Evensong. Those robes! But Brad won’t let me. He says—”

“Evensong!” Finally, something Laura knows. “I can’t wait to—”

Freddy snorts from across the room.

“Oh, it’s gorgeous.” Bonnie grabs hold of Laura’s hands. “You’ll love it. I’m sure you’ll get asked.”


Bonnie’s eyes widen. “I mean,” she says, wiggling an eyebrow. “By a boy. Or a girl. I don’t judge.”

“It’s the hottest date night at St. Dunstan’s,” says Freddy. She doesn’t look up from her phone. “It’s the only date night at St. Dunstan’s.”

Bonnie explains the whole thing. Someone picks you up at your dorm, you walk together at sunset, and then once it’s dark you can hold hands without anybody seeing. Back in first year, when Bonnie was dating Gabe Meltzer, he used to bring flowers to Desmond every week, only he’d try to finger her in the back row, which Bonnie felt was a little bit sacrilegious, even though Bonnie, personally, feels the presence of the divine everywhere, not just in chapel, so there’s no logical reason why a chapel should be more sacred than, say, the rare-book room at the top of Carbonell Library, and Bonnie has had sex plenty of times in the rare-book room at Carbonell Library.

Laura tries, too late, to rearrange her features. Bonnie notices and briefly looks stung.

“It’s not like they use it for anything else.”

One day, Bonnie says, Brad will pick her up here, too. Only, they’re not official yet, because it’s complicated, because Brad has commitment issues, what with his parents being divorced and all. Anyway, Bonnie says, she’s not bitter about it, because Brad is in the chapel choir—he has this gorgeous tenor voice—so it’s not like they’d even get to sit together.

“You’ll love it.”

Laura has never pictured other people at Evensong. Evensong has always been for her and Webster alone.

“I… I’m really excited about the music.” Laura tries not to think about fingering. “I—I mean—I love choral music.”

Freddy snorts again, louder this time.

“Sure you do,” she says.

“Don’t listen to Freddy,” Bonnie says. “She doesn’t like the choir.” She lifts her chin. “She’s a philistine. The music’s gorgeous.” She taps Laura a little too hard on the shoulder. “I’m just glad that you’re not one of those boring people who objects.”

“Why would I object?”

“Because they make you go.”

“Mandatory church,” Freddy says. “Worked for the Spanish Inquisition.”

“It’s not church,” Bonnie says. “It’s… it’s… tradition.”

“It’s in a church, isn’t it?”

“It’s a chapel,” says Bonnie. “It’s not the same.” She bites her lip. “Anyway, some people,” she nods toward Freddy without looking at her, “think it’s oppressive.”

Freddy shrugs.

“The donors like it,” Freddy says. “So it doesn’t matter what we think.”

Not that people haven’t tried, Bonnie points out. Like Isobel Zhao. Last year, Bonnie sniffs, Isobel Zhao ran for student council president—even though she was only a sophomore at the time, and everybody knows nobody runs until junior spring—on this whole platform of abolishing Evensong, or at least making it optional, which as far as Bonnie is concerned is the same thing, since the whole point is that everybody goes, whether or not they believe in God, because it’s a nice thing to do, and anyway Isobel Zhao got 40 percent of the vote, which was less than Anton Gallagher, who won, but still worrying all the same, as a sign of the times.

“I think it’s tragic,” Bonnie says. “Nobody cares about tradition anymore.” She sits up straight. “Except choir, of course.”

Freddy grimaces.

“Do you sing?” Laura tries once more to steer the conversation back to safe ground.

“I’m in the Dewey Decibel System,” Bonnie says too quickly. “That’s the a cappella group, you know. And I have so many other interests.” She clears her throat. “My art. And junior year—it’s the most important one, for colleges. I have to prioritize my academics.” She swallows. “Besides, it’d be weird for Brad. You know what they say about couples spending too much time together….”

“You’re not a couple,” says Freddy.

“Come on, we’re almost official.”

“You’ve been saying that since March.”

“Freddy’s just mad because she’s going to die alone.” Bonnie sniffs. “Anyway, I’m excited. I want to see the new chaplain. Reverend Tipton. Lloyd. Apparently he’s British.” She waits.

Laura makes an ambiguous noise. Bonnie seems satisfied.

“I heard they poached him from Eton. It was all very sudden, you know, after Heeno—Reverend Heenan—died… they were scrambling to find someone over the summer. Poor man.” Bonnie allows, at last, a reverential pause. “I mean, he was really old, so—fuck!

Bells echo from the chapel.

“We’re late! Look!”

Bonnie motions out the window.

The sun is setting. People are already crossing Devonshire Quad. The fog has lifted, and the sky is vermillion, spiked with gold thread.

“I was going to change.” Bonnie looks mournful.

She goes to her closet and picks a pair of precarious stilettos. She squeezes them on.

She totters toward Laura and Freddy.

“Come on,” she says.

She seizes them: balancing, pendulous, between them.

“Let’s go.”

Laura enters the chapel. She forgets everything else.

Laura has been worrying about so many things—fingering, and dates, and flowers, and people who want to abolish Evensong, and what people do in the rare-book room of Carbonell Library, Bonnie’s love life, Freddy’s sneers. None of them seems to matter very much now.

After all, Laura thinks, how can a person care about such irrelevancies when a person is entering a soul-shipwrecking place?

It’s just as Webster said.

Here is the organ; here the marble patterns on the floor. Here is the organ loft; here the lectern shaped like an eagle; here the stained glass window where St. Peter is a fisher of men; here the one with Noah’s ark; here all the fishermen’s saints, because St. Dunstan’s was once for fishermen’s sons; here—Laura’s heart leaps—is Mary the star of the sea: her homecoming expression, her lighthouse arms.

“I know. Right?” Bonnie shoves her way into the front pew.

The sun is gone. The candles flicker. Their shadows are like lace.

“Look.” Bonnie leans in to Laura’s ear. “That’s him. Isn’t he gorgeous?” She points up front toward the altar, where the choir stands in the stalls: two rows of three each, all in black robes, covered by white surplices, staring straight ahead.

Brad!” she burlesques a whisper. “Over here.” Bonnie windmills her arms into a wave.

A boy in the front looks up. He is short and boxy, with thin lips and large, cowlike eyes.

His mouth twitches when he sees them. He raises his hand awkwardly, in a syncopated wave.

The girl next to him grabs him by the shoulder.

He freezes. Her nails dig into his arm.

His smile dies.

The girl purses her lips so tight Laura worries she’ll swallow them.

Brad lowers his arm. He stares off into the middle distance. The girl keeps her arm there.

Laura keeps looking at her.

She is tall—three easy inches on Brad—and severe-looking, pale enough that Laura can make out the blue of her veins. Her hair is long and black and straight; her eyes are arctic blue. Under her robes Laura can make out a pair of black lace gloves. Her back is straight enough to snap.

“Who’s that?” Laura whispers.

“Virginia Strauss,” Bonnie says. “Choir president.”

“What’s the matter with her?”

Virginia slowly returns her hands to her sides.

“She’s just…” Bonnie chews her lips. “Serious.”

Virginia adjusts her music on the prie-dieu.

“Does she like Brad or something?”

Freddy snorts. “Virginia Strauss,” she says, “doesn’t like anyone.”

“That’s not—” Bonnie tries. “I mean, she’s nice. Once you get to know her.”

Freddy just stares at her.

“That’s what Brad says. She’s a good friend, deep down. She’s just…” She searches the rafters for a word. “Guarded.”

Virginia clears her throat.

The boys all stand to attention. They take up their music. They are all perfectly still.

A man in a collar shuffles up the nave.

He is in his early thirties, with horn-rimmed glasses and a nervous, slightly twitchy expression. He is also—even Laura picks up on this this—good-looking.

Bonnie squeals. “That is not Reverend Tipton!”

He makes his way to the lectern.

“I didn’t know they let people who look like that be priests.” By now Bonnie is shouting.

“It’s fine,” Freddy says. “He’s a Protestant.”

Reverend Tipton adjusts his collar.

O gracious light…,” he begins.

“Oh God, and he’s British,” Bonnie coos, as Laura strains to hear the rest.

Pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,” he goes on, stammering on every third word.

“O, Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

“Now, as we come to the setting of the sun,

“and our eyes behold the vesper light,

“we sing your praises.

“O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Virginia crosses herself before Reverend Tipton does. The boys mirror her.

Bonnie accidentally elbows Laura in the ribs doing it, too.

Then they start to sing.

Laura doesn’t know how to explain this part, either.

It’s not just that they’re goodgood is such a dull word for it! Laura has heard good music before, on Spotify, or even sometimes live from the Las Vegas Philharmonic; she knows already that good music inverts her; this isn’t that—no, not that this isn’t that: this is more of that than she has ever known, but also this is something else entirely.

It’s how they’re all singing different notes, that are also somehow all the same; it’s how they’re at once so grand and exultant, swelling up their chests on for he hath rejoiced, and also so soft when the line of the music dies; it’s how Laura can hear all their voices, irreducibly distinct from one another, and also how what Laura hears is a single sound, unbroken, and in the end it’s the strangeness that gets her, because Laura is aware that two opposing things can’t possibly be true at the same time but, also, right now, they are.

And, God, Laura thinks, watching the six of them sing, it’s how they’re not professionals or disembodied voices on a speaker, doing it; they’re just people, ordinary people, real and frail and the same age as she is; like this is a thing a person like her could do.

No wonder, Laura thinks, Robert Lawrence shipwrecked his soul.

Laura wants to do this, too.

Virginia sings the solo line.

For he has regarded, she sings, in her wild, alien soprano, the lowliness of his handmaid.

Laura can’t stop watching her.

Virginia’s eyes are closed. Virginia has turned her face upward to the light. The veins in Virginia’s throat throb every time she changes register.

She looks, Laura thinks, like one of those illustrations she has seen of medieval saints in ecstasy, throwing back their heads while St. Michael plunges a flaming spear into their hearts. She sings, For behold, from henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed, like this is a thing that is happening to Virginia personally, like God has put the Messiah into her womb.

Laura has never seen anyone more beautiful in her life.

They keep singing. Laura doesn’t breathe. She reaches out and grabs Bonnie’s hand, even though she doesn’t even like Bonnie that much; only, tears are clotting the corners of her eyes; only, Laura has to hold on to stop the world from spinning; only, tears are streaming down Laura’s face, and she doesn’t even try to stop them.

Then: the sound of an explosion.

Someone screams. For a wrenching second Laura remembers the headline of every news story she’s ever read about people who bring guns to school, only then the electric guitars start up, and the girl who screamed titters in embarrassment; then comes the distortion, the riff, the growl.

The sound is coming from every speaker in the chapel.

Then, the disembodied voice:

What is this that stands before me?

Figure in black which points at me.

It takes everyone a second to get it.

“What the fuck?” a girl hollers from the back.

A few boys start laughing.

Bonnie’s head whirls around. “Show some respect!”

The choir is silent. Reverend Tipton is pacing in impotent confusion. The music keeps blaring, and somebody screams about how Satan’s sitting, how Satan’s smiling, how the flames rise.

“Black Sabbath.” Freddy Barnes smirks into her palms. “Nice choice.”

A couple of people have started filming.

“Dis-grace-ful,” Bonnie whispers. “And on his first day!”

Ozzy Osbourne keeps shouting about how Satan’s coming, how everybody’s running scared.

Virginia finally looks up.

Brad is standing, reedy and inutile; the rest of them, too, are lost in shock, and even Reverend Tipton is blinking increasingly violently, as if this will stop the speakers somehow, but Virginia is already halfway down the nave.

She marches all the way to the back of the chapel. She doesn’t blink once.

A girl is standing by the door, leaning catlike against the back of the wall.

Half her head is shaved. The other half is pink. She’s wearing scuffed leather boots held together with duct tape. She’s grinning.

Laura averts her eyes.

The girl meets Virginia’s gaze.

Laura swallows.

Virginia reaches down and yanks the power cord from the wall.

There is a final, thundering crash as the speakers overload. Sparks carve out the darkness.

Virginia returns to the altar in silence.

She elbows her way past Brad into the stalls. She lifts her chin. She starts to sing.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.

The boys look at one another. Then they join in.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.

“Disgusting,” Bonnie repeats all the way back across Devonshire Quad.

Some people, she says, just get off on destroying things. That’s the problem with Isobel Zhao, or people like Isobel Zhao—always looking to criticize, to tear things down; they don’t care about St. Dunstan’s, or Evensong, or beauty or art at all. They have no reverence for what’s gorgeous in the world.

“And poor Tipton!”

He must be heartbroken. His very first Evensong, ever, at St. Dunstan’s, all the way across the Atlantic, and look at the sort of welcome he gets.

“I should write him a welcome card,” Bonnie says. “Make sure he knows we aren’t all philistines, here.”

“I thought it was funny,” Freddy says.

“That’s because you have no soul.”

They get back to Desmond. Freddy leaves them on the second floor.

Laura sits on the bed in silence, listening to Bonnie chatter.

She suddenly feels so hideously lonely.

It’s not that she disagrees with Bonnie, exactly. It broke her heart, too, in some sense, that someone could listen to music like that—oh, she thinks again, that music!—and want to profane it, for nothing more than a silly prank, and yet somehow Bonnie’s garrulous outrage makes her feel even more at sea than the prank itself.

Webster, she tells herself, would have understood.

She nods at Bonnie a little while longer, as Bonnie frets about poor Brad, and how hard it must have been for him—working as hard as he does on the choir, to have people disrespect his efforts like that—and if anybody needs admiration and respect and an attentive audience it’s a child of divorce with commitment issues, and then Laura can stand it no longer.

“I’m going to take a shower,” she says.

Bonnie barely looks up. “Suit yourself,” she says.

Laura spends twenty minutes in the shower, even though she’s clean after five. After, she brushes her teeth as slowly as she can manage.

Behind her, someone turns off one of the showers.

Virginia Strauss steps out toward the sink.

She is wearing a towel. Her hair goes down to her waist. She has five inches on Laura. Her hair smells like figs.

“You’re blocking my toiletries box,” she says.

“Sorry.” Laura realizes, too late, that she has toothpaste in her mouth. It dribbles onto her chin.

Virginia starts to brush her teeth.

Laura overflows with all the things she wants to say to her. She wants to ask her what it was like, singing like that, and whether she really was in ecstasy or whether she just looked that way; and whether it’s intentional, the way the end of every line sounds like dying; and whether she chose Stanford’s Magnificat in C on purpose, because of Webster, or whether that was just one of those coincidences that makes you believe in the enchanted order of the whole world; and also whether she has ever been as lonely as Laura has always been, before coming here; and whether she is less lonely now, but Laura knows you cannot ask a stranger any of these things, so she sighs and then she stammers and then at last she expels, so lamely, “That was a really beautiful service.”

Virginia just looks at her.

“I mean, other than the prank.” Laura can’t stop herself. “I mean, even with the prank, the music was still so gorgeous. I mean, I—I’m sorry that that happened to you. It’s wrong, doing something like that, ruining the atmosphere, not that it was ruined, obviously, but—”

Virginia spits into the sink.

“That atmosphere?”

“I mean, you know, the music, and the…”

“It’s a service of worship. It’s not supposed to be gorgeous.”

“I didn’t mean…”

“If you want gorgeous music”—Virginia wrenches the faucet shut—“I suggest you go listen to the Dewey Decibel System.”

She leaves Laura, fumbling, in the middle of the bathroom floor.

Laura composes herself in the mirror, trying not to cry.

What an idiot you are, she tells herself.

Only an idiot would use a gossipy hashtag of a word like gorgeous to describe something as rapturous as Evensong. Only an idiot would try to talk about atmosphere, as if St. Dunstan’s were nothing but an Instagram background. She should have said something about Webster at least, or at least correctly identified the Magnificat they’d sung as being by Stanford, something—anything—to convey that, even if she isn’t the kind of person who can sing with such savage clarity, then at least that she appreciates when other people do.

Finally, finally, she’s found someone who gets it: who understands about souls and shipwrecks—and she’s already ruined it. She doesn’t begrudge Virginia her rudeness. Laura knows she deserves it. She’s no better than Bonnie—making everything profound foul and dull and performative.

Laura’s face still burns. She welcomes the shame.

It’s reminding her how much better she can be.

Next time she sees Virginia, she tells herself, she will be ready. She’ll have prepared. She will show Virginia that she understands Evensong, in all its rapturous and inhuman glory, that she knows that it is so much more than atmosphere.

By the time Laura gets back to room 312, Bonnie is already in her pajamas, poring over videos of the prank on her phone.

Laura gets into bed. She puts in her earbuds. She hunts for a recording of the Stanford Magnificat, one that sounds, even a little bit, like the way Virginia sounds when she sings it. She raises the volume, loud enough to drown out Bonnie’s intermittent and disapproving sniffs.

Laura listens to it on repeat until she falls asleep.

About The Author

Rose Callahan

Tara Isabella Burton is the author of the novels The World Cannot Give and Social Creature, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The New York TimesVulture, and The Guardian. She is also the author of the nonfiction books Strange Rites and Self-Made. She has written on religion, culture, and place for The New York Times, National GeographicThe Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and more. She received a doctorate in theology from Trinity College, Oxford.

Why We Love It

“I’ve been a Tara Isabella Burton obsessive ever since I read her debut novel, Social Creature and pretty much stalked her agent for her next novel for years after. Tara is one of the best chroniclers of obsession I’ve read. And not just the typical ‘obsessive female friendship’ or ‘obsessive relationship’ type of obsession we see in lots of psychological suspense—she writes about Obsession with a capital O. Obsession to the point of destruction, and what it means when someone becomes consumed by faith—or fanaticism. The World Cannot Give explores religious fervor and obsession in the same way Emma Cline got into the inner workings of cult mentality in The Girls. And Tara is the perfect person to write this book, as she’s both a novelist and a scholar of religion.”

—Carina G., Senior Editor, on The World Cannot Give

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 7, 2023)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982170073

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Raves and Reviews

A most anticipated book of 2022 from Harper’s Bazaar, Nylon, Crimereads, and Bustle

The Secret History meets The Price of Salt

"Burton has crafted a hypnotic and intense book readers won’t want to put down."

"Tara Isabella Burton harnesses the fresh desire of teenage-dom in this story of a boarding school on the coast of Maine: A charismatic, devout, and sexually ambiguous young choir member manipulates her acolytesto fatal ends."
—Vanity Fair

"Equal parts dangerous and delicious"
—Entertainment Weekly

"This new novel from the author of Social Creature plunges readers into a vortex of dark academia and queer desire."
Harper's Bazaar

“Burton touches upon all the best parts of dark academia…She digs deep into the darkest corners of the human psyche to pose several poignant, thought-provoking questions about devotion, power, repression and the obsession of youth….If there is a writer better suited than Tara Isabella Burton to join the ranks of Donna Tartt, I certainly cannot think of one. She is not only a gorgeous prose writer, but also a brave one who, even when she makes you uncomfortable, is always pushing the envelope.”

"This exquisitely modern examination of the adolescent need to give oneself over to beauty and certainty, heedless of reality or consequences, is one of the best boarding school crime novels I’ve ever read."
Criminal Element

"A defiantly distinct meditation on power, desire, and the search for self. Events unfold from Laura’s perspective via an increasingly breathless third-person-present narrative, conferring voyeuristic intimacy. Deftly drawn, deeply insecure characters complement the melodramatic plot, which crescendos to a devastating close."
Kirkus, Starred Review

"Burton writes with a heart-stopping understanding of the micro-dynamics among adolescents still uncentered at their cores. The insular campus setting and small scenes in crypts, libraries, and dorm rooms that contain big emotions and powerful dialogue will make readers cringe at what they can see coming."

“THE WORLD CANNOT GIVE is the perfect book for anyone who loves A SEPARATE PEACE, anyone who hates A SEPARATE PEACE and anyone who has never read A SEPARATE PEACE. It is at once wonderfully old-fashioned yet thrillingly modern, rich in setting and character, specific and universal. In short: I loved it."
—Laura Lippman, New York Times bestselling author of Lady in the Lake

"Tara Isabella Burton has consistently revealed herself to be one of this country's most interesting writers. There is almost nothing she sets her pen to that isn't page-turningly fascinating. She roots around the dark corners of the human psyche, writing astutely about the dangers of repression and the psychological and physical violence it often breeds. The World Cannot Give was as unexpected as it was riveting."
—Attica Locke, author of Heaven, My Home and Bluebird, Bluebird

"I devoured this book in a single rapturous day, and finished it with the eerie satisfied sense that it had been written specifically for me, or someone like me. I have spent my life as a reader hunting for those books that hit every mark: gorgeous sentences, enthralling plot design, characters that I am wedded to or haunted by long after the book ends, a sense of the erotic that is as queer as it is and insistent and hypnotic, and a keyhole view of some cultish sect of social life that I don't want to join, but to which I want a front row seat. I simply cannot recommend this novel highly enough. It is, I think, a perfect book."
—Melissa Febos, Nationally bestselling author of Girlhood and Whip Smart

"Tara Isabella Burton is both one of our sharpest writers of witty, propulsive fiction and one of our most profound thinkers on the 21st Century's search for religious meaning. With The World Cannot Give, she has united her talents and written a fun, serious, surprising, necessary novel about the twin adolescent thirsts for sexual experimentation and "World-Historical" importance, and the way those thirsts shape and thwart each other. Calling to mind the work of writers such as Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, and Donna Tartt, The World Cannot Give gives and gives and gives."
—David Burr Gerrard, author of The Epiphany Machine

"I love this book. Tara Isabella Burton writes beautifully about beauty, and about transcendence and longing and desire. Her characters are so vibrantly alive, so searching, so raw, so foolish and so profound. Wonderful from start to finish."
Phil Klay, author of Missionaries and Redeployment

"A finely drawn portrait of mystic passion and fevered yearning, THE WORLD CANNOT GIVE will keep you up long into the strange, dark, thrilling night."
—Elisabeth Thomas, author of Catherine House

"Burton’s second novel is just as deliciously involving as her debut Social Creature, but makes rather better use of her doctorate in theology and ongoing religious scholarship.... It’s a book about the nature of and limits of fervor, religious, sexual, and otherwise, and a spellbinding coming of age story that—despite being set in the Instagram-laden present—feels somehow plucked out of time."
Emily Temple, Crimereads

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