Book Review: The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton
Genres: Dark Academia
Publication Date: March 8, 2022
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Format: E-ARC via NetGalley

Synopsis from GoodReads:

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 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.


Review

The World Cannot Give left me emotionally devastated for days. I mean this in the best (worst?) way. I will try to review this book as best I can without spoilers. This is one book that I will read again when I want to be devastated and in my obsessive feelings.

A queer, dark academia novel set in a boarding school in Maine, centered around a group of choral students led by a cold, yet alluring girl named Virginia, Laura, the new girl, is immediately taken. We get to witness her fall for a girl who is everything that she sees in their favorite author, Sebastian Webster. We get to see Laura grapple with her feelings, her sexuality, her perceived failings. It is such an experience and I truly loved seeing the imperfection, the problematic representations, and the outright denial of reality until it was impossible to do so.

This book is set into three parts spaced out over the school year. And this story lays out what it looks like to put someone (fictional and real) on a pedestal and to watch the fall from grace. It was such a disturbing journey at times, but I enjoyed and hurt my own feelings by connecting so deeply to the characters, even as problematic and unlikeable as some of them are.

I do want to note about the topic of AroAce representation in this book. I have seen many reviews blasting it for having Virginia represent an aroace character under the guise of her being aroace because of religion. That was not something that I personally interpreted. (As a sidenote: the ONLY queer identity even explicitly stated is Isabel and her girlfriend being lesbians.) Speaking as an ace queer, the topic of sex in book is more about power and manipulation than by an individuals queerness and identity. Not saying that a queer person cannot use sex as a power tool, because that can definitely be the case; and so far as aro, there is a conversation about how she doesn’t love people “in that way” but again, I don’t feel it has to do with religion. In general, I do feel like Virginia’s character flaw/problematic behavior is so much more about her manipulation than about her wielding her religious identity. I hope that makes sense.

When I tell you the ending wrecked me, I do not mean this lightly. I did not see the ending coming and it absolutely devastated me; I cried, I yelled at the characters, and felt so many emotions after closing the book.
It is an emotionally charged story and I highly recommend being in a good head space while reading it (fun fact, I was not, which may be why it hit me so hard).

Semi-spoilery, please remember this is a Dark Academia book. Common tropes include cult like/secret society rites and behaviors, obsession, betrayal, death, unhealthy attachments to people both literal and fictional, unlikable and unreliable characters.

Minor complaint: I have no idea why this book is compared to Fight Club? Someone please explain that to me.

Thank you to Tara Isabella Burton, Simon & Schuster, and NetGalley for this e-book in exchange for a honest review.

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