Gabriella Burnham's 'Wait' book review: NPR

Cover of Wait

Thomas Wolfe famously gave one of his novels the title You can't go home anymore. It's something to keep in mind when reading Gabriella Burnham's To wait, in which a mother and daughter experience two very different homecomings after years of absence. Both come to see the hometowns they left behind in their late teens in a new light.

Burnham's second novel is not the light-hearted beach read you might expect from its Nantucket setting and classic shingle-style seaside house on the cover. Instead of a summer romp, what we have here is a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of stark economic inequality. To wait Lesser-known Nantucket is a vacation destination for millionaires where year-round residents, some of whom are undocumented, struggle to pay high rents and make ends meet, especially during the late off-season when local service businesses such as landscaping, housekeeping and restaurants go on a break.

The novel begins on the eve of the main character's graduation from university, where she studied environmental studies. Due to financial constraints, Elise has not been home to Nantucket since she left for North Carolina four years ago. She is happy that her mother, Gilda, and her 18-year-old sister, Sophie, are coming to celebrate this milestone with her.

But after a night of partying on campus with her wealthy best friend, Elise wakes up to alarming news from her sister: their mother is missing. She never showed up for the ferry, the first leg of their long journey to Chapel Hill.

Gilda, who left Brazil more than 20 years earlier, is a cook who works 70 hours a week during Nantucket's peak season to support her two American-born daughters. The girls' father, an Irish bartender who met Gilda shortly after her arrival on Nantucket, left for Ireland without a trace when the girls were young.

We soon learn that Gilda, whose last visa had expired 18 years earlier during her difficult second pregnancy, was intercepted by ICE agents on her way to the Hyannis ferry and deported, “subject to expedited removal.” It turned out that an ICE official had been monitoring Gilda's social media accounts, tipping off the agency to her plans to leave the island to attend her daughter's graduation ceremony.

Gilda lands back in Brazil, at her half-sister's house, shocked and worried about her daughters. The girls answer her panicked calls, often on their way to their cheap summer jobs. Whatever else you can say about Gilda, she has clearly done a good job raising her two daughters, who are excellent students and diligent workers. Fresh out of high school, Sophie works extra shifts at a local upscale café, where she remains unflappable as she demands complicated orders from customers for fancy coffee. Elise returns to her summer job monitoring endangered wildlife on a remote stretch of protected coastline. Emerging plovers become a beautiful symbol for the way in which the resourceful women in this family flee.

When Elise's college friend Sheba arrives at the summer estate her two powerful, socially connected mothers recently inherited from her grandfather, it initially feels like an answered prayer for the sisters' mounting housing problems.

In an interview with her publisher, Burnham spoke of her firsthand knowledge of housing insecurity on this island of multi-million dollar villas that sit empty most of the year: When she was in high school, her family was expelled their rental home, and she and her sister were placed in foster care. Her mother, like Gilda, came from Brazil and worked in the kitchens of Nantucket, although she was not deported. Burnham's familiarity with Brazil enriches both To wait and her first novel, It's wood, it's stone, about a worried American woman's relationship with her housekeeper, who is placed under house arrest when she moves to Sao Paulo for her husband's job.

It takes place during a uniquely stressful summer for Gilda and her daughters. To wait emphasizes the strong ties between the three. Burnham also explores various friendships, as well as relationships between summer residents and year-rounders on the island.

Unlike the sisters, Sheba is a woefully unsympathetic character. Her role in the novel is to make the well-known point that material wealth can be spiritually impoverishing and that financial security does not protect against emotional insecurity. Sheba's jealousy of Elise's relationship with Sophie and her petulant sense of entitlement contrast too sharply with the sisters' caring bond and purposeful lives. It strains credulity that the sensible Elise would be attracted to her for so long. Would that be the case if Sheba were not so rich? “You promise you love me more than my house?” Sheba says pathetically after acting particularly unpleasantly.

Burnham's confident story draws us in, although some peculiar word choices make us pause: 'a cascade of pasta,” “the performance“of Sheba's mother's room, “a strolling around of emotion lingering within her.”

But still, negatives aside, To wait movingly tackles serious issues in one of America's premier vacation destinations. It is a commendable achievement.

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