The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

this is my fault. i should know by now that titles claiming to have dark academia or sapphic vibes should be approached with extreme caution.

DISCLAIMER: I did not like this book and my review reflects of that. I will be brutally honest about my thoughts on this novel so if you want to read this or if this book happens to be on your ‘radar’ I recommend you check out more positive reviews. If you loved this book, I am happy for you but please don’t tell me I’m wrong for disagreeing with you.


Affected and self-important The World Cannot Give makes for a singularly insipid read. Its biggest ‘sin’ is that it tries to be the dark academia equivalent of Not Like Other Girls. For all its attempts at being ‘not like’ other dark academia books, The World Cannot Give was one of the most generic books I’ve read in a very long time. From its poorly rendered setting to its wafer-thin characters, The World Cannot Give reads like a been-there-done-that boarding school novel. This is the kind of novel that thinks it is a lot smarter than it is (in reality it is as intellectually deep as a puddle, of the shallow variety). For all its attempts at intertextuality and self-awareness (we have few throwaway lines on the dangers of romanticizing elitist institutions and idealizing the past and historical figures), it has nothing substantial or new to say. The author’s writing style and the tone of her narrative brought to mind two novels that I am not fond of, The Silent Patient and An Anonymous Girl. If you liked them chances are you will have a more positive reading experience with The World Cannot Give than I was.
If you like cheesy shows such as Riverdale or self-dramatizing books such as Plain Bad Heroines ,Belladonna, A Lesson in Vengeance, Vicious Little Darlings, Good Girls Lie (where characters are prone to angsty theatricals) you may be able to actually enjoy The World Cannot Give.
As I warned above, this review is going to be harsh so if you aren’t keen on reading negative reviews you should really give this review a miss.

minor spoilers below

STORY/PLOT
Contrary to what the blurb says, The World Cannot Give is no ‘The Girls meets Fight Club’. Nor is it a satisfying ‘coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence. And the only ‘shocking’ thing about it is that it is shockingly bad. On the lines of, how was this even published?
The first page is misleadingly promising. I liked the opening line and that whole first paragraph. Alas, with each new page, my high hopes dwindled.
Laura is on her way to St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine. She’s ecstatic about attending this school because she hero-worships Sebastian Webster who used to go there in the 1930s. Angsty Webster wrote this book about the “sclerotic modern world” and the “shipwreck of the soul” and goes on and on about wanting to be “World-Historical”. Webster died at 19 fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Anyway, our sensitive Laura is enthralled by his writings and his fake-deep ideas so of course, she wants to study where he did. She gets to St. Dunstan goes to her room and meets two girls who from this scene onwards will not change. That is, this one scene establishes their one-note characters. There is Freddy who is a tertiary sort of character who just glares, snorts, scowls, and grimaces because that’s the kind of mean-ish one-dimensional sidekick she is. Then there is Bonnie who is all about her followers and using her boarding school as a prop for her dark academia inspired videos & photos. Laura eventually goes to the school’s chapel (Webster is buried there and there is a statue in his honour in that area) and she hears the choir. Her spirit is so moved by what she experiences at the chapel that she feels lifted to a higher plane of existence or something. But wait, the choir is rudely interrupted by a girl with a shaved head who is a queer feminist who is just like so done with the institution and wants to abolish mandatory church attendance. Laura, our innocent, is shooketh by her actions and somehow, despite her wishy-washy personality, ingratiates herself with the choir president, Virginia. We learn virtually nothing more about the school, nor do we get any real insight into how Laura’s classes are going, what she’s studying, her teachers, their methods…Laura joins the choir and what follows is a lot of scenes that are just filler leading up to the real ‘conflict’. The choir, this ‘clique’, did not make for interesting people, consequently, I was bored by the limited banter that didn’t reveal anything significant about them or their surroundings. Laura is Virginia’s lapdog, so she starts emulating whatever Virginia does (comparing herself to other literary sidekicks), Virginia spends her time ranting about the ‘sclerotic world’, her aversion towards matters of the flesh, and bemoaning the ye olden days and is mad that she has to be in the proximity of so many sinners. She also doesn’t want Brad, who is also in the choir, and Bonnie to be together. Brad is loyal to Virginia so he is conflicted. Bonnie is in love with Brad for reasons. And why the hell not at this point. The only ones in the choir who came across as devoted to Webster, his ‘insights’ into the ills of the modern world, were Laura and Virginia. But they just have the same conversations about this guy. They don’t expand on his views, they merely reiterate the term ‘World-Historical’ and his other catchphrases. Anyway, time goes by and eventually things come to head when Bonnie decides to encroach on Virginia’s territory (the chapel) as retaliation for her interfering in her love life (instead of taking issue with Brad…ugh). Isobel, the queer feminist, comes into play but her presence is very much kept off-page. Virginia becomes increasingly fanatical and decides to go all Old Testament God on the people who have betrayed her or revealed that they are not ‘virtuous’ (quelle surprise…).

TONE/WRITING
You see the cover, you read the blurb, you come across someone comparing this to Donna Tartt (comparing book such as this to the secret history should be made into a punishable offence…ahem, i’m jesting of course), you think, this is going to be DEEP and possibly even intellectual and emotionally stimulating. You are, of course, dead wrong. This book reads like a spoof. But not a fully committed one. It actually reminded me of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. There the narrative makes fun of the heroine for wanting to be in a Gothic novel and seeing the world through Gothic-tinted lenses and overdramatising everything. This is exactly it. Except, it also takes itself seriously…kind of? The writing and tone try to mirror the way Laura sees the world. She yearns for Webster and, like Virginia, finds the present-day intolerable. So the writing uses this exaggerated and self-dramatizing language reminiscent of historical novels. Some of these are actually decent. But then we get a lot of short sentences and exclamations marks. This kind of style can work. For instance, in Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia, which actually happens to be a far superior boarding-school book exploring queer desire. The language there is very high-flown but it worked because Strachey could write some truly beautiful and playful passages.
Here the writing verges on the ridiculous and more often than not it comes across as just plain bad. We had clumsy, inharmonious, and even cheesy sentences: “Barry Ng blushes at this. Virginia glares at him. Brad sighs a long and heavy sigh.”; “She looks from Brad to Bonnie and back again. Brad sighs a long and exhausted sigh.”; “Shame floods Laura’s face; she curdles it into fury.” (lol); ““One choir. One family.” Her smile twitches.” (twitching smiles? what is this? fanfic i wrote at 15?); “Her smile glints.” (ugh); “Virginia didn’t know. Virginia couldn’t have known. Virginia would never. Virginia always would. Of course, of course, Virginia would.”; “Isobel is wrong, Laura tells herself. Isobel has to be wrong. Isobel’s just jealous; Isobel has no sense of transcendence;”. And these are just a few examples…the writing & tone did nothing for me. Very few writers can make third person present tense work and Burton isn’t one of them I’m afraid…
I struggled to take it seriously and even if it was intentionally trying to be satirical, well, even then I would have found it ridiculous.

THEMES/ ‘IDEOLOGY’
Like I said above this book tries to be different from other boarding schools/dark academia books by referencing the rise in popularity that dark academia aesthetics & media have had in the last few years…but that doesn’t result automatically in a thought-provoking commentary on the dangers of romanticism elitist institutions such as universities and or private schools. One of the two only poc characters in the story has a few lines that highlight how institutions like St. Duncan are built on inequality and that we should be more critical about those Old White Men who likely committed Bad Things and should not be therefore uncritically revered. Yeah fair enough. But that’s it. Laura and Virginia spend the whole bloody book going on about the ‘sclerotic modern world’ and are contemptuous of anyone who isn’t in awe of Webster. They believe in God..sort of? For all their talk about sins and transcendence, I was not at all convinced that they even had a strong relationship to their faith. Virginia wants to be baptized, but her decision to do so is made sus because she’s portrayed as sort of unhinged so she truly isn’t ‘genuine’. Laura instead is more mellow about her faith so I don’t understand why she would Virginia’s fanatical rants to be of any appeal. You do you babe and all that but come on…Virginia wasn’t even a charismatic orator. Their ideology actually brought to mind the kids from The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Like those lil creeps, Virginia and Laura find the modern world to be disgusting. They particularly don’t get why people are obsessed with sex. They merely want to transcend their bodies and reach a higher, more enlightened plane of existence. I think the author was trying to do her own version of “Beauty is terror” but yikes. It just came across as stagy. Additionally, I found it annoying that characters who could have been on the aroace spectrum are actually just ‘repressed’.
Anyway, this book had nothing interesting to say about faith, romanticizing the past, or the dangers of idealizing the ones you care for.
The story towards the end takes a weird route in that it becomes all about how boys/men exploit women and betray their trusts by sharing explicit photos and videos of their gf or sex partners with their male friends and this plotline worsened the already existing disconnect between the tone and the content of the book.

CHARACTERS/RELATIONSHIPS
I understand that people are incongruent but these characters did not make bloody sense. They were extremely one-note and then for plot-reasons they would do something really random. Laura is boring and annoying. I can cope with characters who are obsessed with a friend or who are introverted or even naive. But Laura was just embarrassing. Her devotion to Virginia lacked substance. Their dynamic was uneventful. Bonnie was depicted in a purposely grating way and grated my nerves. Isobel was gay and a feminist and stands against the bullshit Virginia and Laura believe in. That’s it. The boys are either milquetoast assholes who don’t see the problem in sharing nudes or doing whatever Virginia says because why not. There is this one guy in the choir who exists just to say ‘that’s cringe’ or ‘that’s completely cringe’.
Virginia was the worst offender. She had no redeeming qualities but we were meant to feel some degree of sympathy towards her. Come on. She wasn’t a convincing or compelling character. I didn’t find her an intriguing or cryptic mystery. She was nasty and I didn’t like that everything she does or says is basically chalked up to her being a total religious zealot. All of her reactions are so extreme as to make her into a caricature more than a person. I didn’t like the way her eating disorder was portrayed as it
The obsession and desire promised by the blurb were just not really there. I mean, yeah, the girl was obsessed but there was something perfunctory about it. The sapphic yearning I was hoping to find in these pages was largely absent. There is a f/f couple, but they had barely any scenes and they had 0 chemistry whatsoever. They came across as friends or sisters even. Then we are meant to believe that someone like Isobel would fall for Virginia because they shared a past? Surely Isobel, who is supposedly clever, would be a bit sus about Virginia’s sudden change of heart. Also, shouldn’t Virginia’s decline in her physical and mental health be a red flag of sorts? Shouldn’t Isobel have shown more concern over Virginia’s state of mind?

SETTING
0 sense of place. There are barely any descriptions of the school and very few passages detailing the nearby landscapes. The novel takes place nowadays I guess but there were barely any contemporary references. This could have worked if then we didn’t have a plotline involving Bonnie’s online following, sexting, or even certain terms (such as cringe) being used. It just took me out of the story as the majority of the narrative and dialogues were trying to conjure an ‘old’ timeless vibe. I think if the novel had had a historical setting it would have actually worked in its favour. Its modern social commentary after all is very half-arsed and had a vague tokenistic vibe to it (isobel existing just to oppose the establishment etc.).

I’m going to recommend a few books that in my opinion do what this book tries to do a lot better: Frost in May (coming of age, all-girl school, Catholicism), Abigail (coming of age, WWII Hungary, all-girl school, fraught friendships), Old School (all-boys schools, jealousy, ambition, privilege, self-knowledge), Sweet Days of Discipline (queer desire, obsession, order vs. chaos, all-girl school), The Inseparables (all-girl school, obsession, queer desire, Catholicism),These Violent Delights (college, obsession, toxic relationships, queer desire), Olivia (all-girl school, France 1890s, unrequited love, queer desire), A Great and Terrible Beauty (fantasy, fraught friendships, all-girl schools, f/f side), Passing (jealousy, race, queer repressed desire), Ninth House (dark academia, Yale, urban fantasy, tackles privilege, corruption, misogyny), The Wicker King (dark academia vibes, queer desire, obsession, toxic relationships).

Maybe if this novel had gone truly committed to being a parody, and upped the camp factor, maybe then I would have found it a little bit amusing. But it didn’t so nope, this novel did not work for me at all. The story was stupid, the characters were either bland or neurotic (in a really exaggerated, possibly problematic, way), the themes were poorly developed and relied on the usage of a few certain key terms (without delving into what this term truly means), the sapphic element was largely absent…you get the gist by now. I actually wish I’d dnfed but I hoped that it would improve along the way. When will I learn the lesson? A beautiful cover doth not make for a good book.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s