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The World Cannot Give

The World Cannot Give Summary

The World Cannot Give The Girls meets Fight Club in this coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence among the devoted members of a cultic chapel choir in a prestigious Maine boarding school—and the obsessively 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 members of the choir.

Virginia inducts the besotted Laura into a world of transcendent music and arcane ritual, illicit cliff-diving, and midnight crypt visit 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 shocking meditation on the power, and danger, of wanting more from the world.

About the Author

Tara Isabella Burton’s debut novel, Social Creature, was named a “best book of the year” by The New York TimesVulture, and The Guardian. She has written on religion, culture, and place for The New York Times, National GeographicThe Washington Post, The Wall Street JournalCity JournalThe Economist’s 1843, Aeon, The BBC, The Atlantic, Salon, The New Statesman, and The Telegraph. 

She is a columnist at Religion News Service, a contributing editor at American Purpose, and the former staff religion writer at Vox. Her fiction has appeared in GrantaVolume 1 BrooklynThe New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, TorPANK, and more. She received a doctorate in theology from Trinity College, Oxford, where she was a Clarendon Scholar, in 2017.

The World Cannot Give Introduction

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


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 a 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.

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The World Cannot Give

The World Cannot Give PDF

Product details:

EditionInternational Edition
ISBN1982170069, 978-1982170066
Posted onMarch 8, 2022
Page Count320 pages
AuthorTara Isabella Burton

The World Cannot Give PDF Tara Isabella PDF Free Download - Epicpdf

The World Cannot Give The Girls meets Fight Club in this coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence among the devoted members of a cultic chapel choir in a prestigious Maine boarding school—and the obsessively ambitious, terrifyingly charismatic girl that rules over them.


Author: Tara Isabella Burton

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