A Novel of Nantucket’s Unglamorous Side

WAIT, by Gabriella Burnham

Nantucket, that beautiful island off the coast of Massachusetts, is rarely associated with poverty. Gorgeous estates, wealthy men in pink shorts, slender women wearing sun hats, happy children in pastels, pretty boutiques, cobblestone streets, photogenic beaches, clambakes — these are the most common images of Nantucket.

Gabriella Burnham knows this world because she grew up in it. She knows, too, that moneyed Nantucket is but one story of the island. The other, less-told one, the Nantucket of undocumented immigrants and broken families, housing insecurity and hopelessness, is the focus of her commendable sophomore novel, “Wait.”

The story follows Elise, who learns, days after her college graduation, that her mother has been deported to Brazil. Gilda had overstayed her visa and, as she explains to her older daughter, was thrown out of the country “like I was nothing more than a little flea.” Elise has no other family besides her sister, Sophie, a recent high school graduate. Together, they must find a way to support themselves on Nantucket, no small feat in a place where affordable housing is scarce and the cost of living high. The sisters are offered a lifeline by Elise’s college friend, an heiress named Sheba who has her own problems (such as getting rejected from a yacht club).

Burnham leaves little doubt about how much she understands the people who populate her novel — the things that matter to them, the ways in which Nantucket has shaped them, the reasons they leave or won’t leave the island. Her compassion for them is evident — and, yes, that includes the affluent ones who come across as arrogant and snobbish toward those who wait on them all summer long. Consider the fund-raising dinner hosted by one of Sheba’s mothers, who hires Elise to serve her environmentalist guests and their benefactors. As humiliating as this experience turns out to be, Elise is grateful; after all, she earned some money for her efforts. But Sheba, who’s livid about how her mother treated her friend during the dinner, says, “She uses you like a PowerPoint presentation on poverty during her fake fund-raising dinner, and you’re grateful because she paid you for it?”

What else can Elise feel? And what else can her sister feel? Like their mother, they’re at the mercy of forces bigger than themselves; all they can do is sweep up the crumbs that fall off the tables of others, even if those crumbs are pushed in their direction with the soles of dirty shoes.

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