At Tara Isabella Burton’s fictional boarding school, the hunger for transcendence gets dark

A tale of beauty, religion, and how easy it is to exploit them

Early in my first year at an eccentric liberal arts college, some students organized an extracurricular reading of Plato’s Symposium in our professor’s apartment. For practical and legal reasons there would be no wine, but to make up for this lack of authenticity it was agreed that we would all attend in togas. I don’t recall what conclusions, if any, we reached together, but a photograph survived and now lives on my hard drive. Those faces look out across 25 years with both the genuine desire to walk among the berobed immortals and the self-aware tomfoolery of student life. Today we might borrow a term from the world of movie and game fandom and call it LARPing (live-action role playing).

Residential education allows these quick changes of emotional and intellectual costume. Academic enthusiasms, experiments with identity, and personal or political passions can all flourish on campus. People can do and be many things they couldn’t before and, perhaps, can’t after. They can be in earnest and they can pose, and they can certainly lose sight of the difference. In Tara Isabella Burton’s new novel, a clique of aesthetes at a Maine boarding school lose sight of the difference between an earnest conversion and a political pose. But the consequences end up far beyond adult embarrassment at taking oneself and one’s preoccupations too seriously.

Beginning with the arrival of Laura Stearns, a blank and sensitive junior-year transfer student from Nevada, the story takes us into the college-like atmosphere of St. Dunstan’s. Laura is obsessed with a novel by an alumnus who died in the Spanish Civil War after writing about—that’s right—student life at St. Dunstan’s. The anachronisms of the place, like mandatory attendance at weekly choral Evensong, are as fusty and irrelevant to much of the current student body as the romantic novelist is. But they fascinate Laura, who yearns for aesthetic transcendence, for the “shipwreck of the soul” her hero wrote about.