A Novel

About the Book

A young woman reunites with her teenage sister in their childhood home on Nantucket Island after their mother is deported in this alluring coming-of-age novel that “movingly tackles serious issues in one of America’s premier vacation spots” (NPR).

“Gabriella Burnham knows . . . the Nantucket of undocumented immigrants and broken families. . . . This tender novel allows us to rejoice when tiny windows of opportunities begin to open.”—Imbolo Mbue, The New York Times Book Review

Elise is out dancing the night before her college graduation when her younger sister, Sophie, calls to tell her that their mom is nowhere to be found. Elise leaves on the next flight back to her childhood home, Nantucket Island, for the first time in nearly four years.

The sisters soon learn that their mother was stopped by police on her way home from work and deported to São Paulo, Brazil. Intent on bringing her mother back, Elise stays and secures the same job she had in high school: monitoring endangered birds. Meanwhile, her best friend from college, Sheba—a gregarious socialite and heir to a famed children’s toy company—reveals that she has inherited her grandfather’s summer mansion on Nantucket. Elise’s worlds collide as she confronts the emotional and material conditions that have fractured her family, as well as the life in Brazil that her mother has had to leave behind.

Told with penetrating insight, humor, and unexpected tenderness, Wait is a story about a family swimming against the social currents that erode bonds: housing precarity, immigration systems, and inherited wealth. But it is also a story about love, wit, and sisterhood, and how two sisters cling to each other in the midst of cataclysmic change, all the while dreaming about a better future.
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Praise for Wait

“Burnham leaves little doubt about how much she understands the people who populate her novel. . . . Her compassion for them is evident—and, yes, that includes the affluent ones who come across as arrogant and snobbish. . . . There is no easy way out for any of them, but this tender novel allows us to rejoice when tiny windows of opportunities begin to open.”—Imbolo Mbue, The New York Times Book Review

Wait movingly tackles serious issues in one of America’s premier vacation spots. It is a commendable accomplishment.”—Heller McAlpin, NPR

Wait is beautiful, heartfelt, and transcendent—a carefully crafted portrayal of motherhood, sisterhood, and friendship put to the ultimate test. I found myself caring deeply about these characters and wanting to know desperately what was going to happen to them next. Wait is also the best account of year-round Nantucket Island that I’ve ever read.”—Nathaniel Philbrick, National Book Award–winning author of In the Heart of the Sea, Mayflower, and Travels with George

Wait is a limpid and lovely, powerful and affecting novel of family ties, sisterhood’s tender mercies, and the material conditions that shape our lives. Gabriella Burnham has given us a novel to remember, one that takes us to Nantucket and beyond—and we should gladly go.”—Sarah Thankam Mathews, National Book Award–nominated author of All This Could Be Different

“Wise and richly layered, Wait is on one level a tender coming-of-age story set on the beautiful beaches of Nantucket, and on another a powerful inquiry into who gets to lay claim to American soil and call it home. Burnham’s nuanced exploration of friendship and sisterhood, inherited wealth and housing insecurity, birthright and disenfranchisement will stay with me. I could not put this book down and continued to think about it long after I emerged from its propulsive pages.”—Qian Julie Wang, author of Beautiful Country

“Imbued with hope and loss, Wait is a stunning examination of homecoming and familial devotion. Burnham’s prose is sensuous and exacting. She writes about sisterhood, daughterhood, and friendship with deep wisdom and exquisite precision.”—Kayla Maiuri, author of Mother in the Dark

“As I read this novel, I could almost feel the Nantucket sea breeze whipping against my face and, at other times, caressing me.”—Daphne Palasi Andreades, author of Brown Girls
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Elise sits cross-­legged on the dorm room floor, absently twirling a sheepskin rug as she watches Sheba dress for the party. A window on the far wall has been propped open with a textbook; the night’s tranquil air eases into the room. Sheba searches through a heap of hangered clothes on her bed and pulls out a slinky shift dress that resembles the one Elise is already wearing—­black, spaghetti straps, a neckline that drapes like molasses. She slips the hanger over her head and pins the fabric to her hipbone. Yes, no doubt, go with that one, Elise tells her. The identical dress she has on is borrowed from Sheba anyway.

I can’t stay out late tonight, Sheba says. Like, physically speaking, I cannot. My body will revolt.

Will I know anyone there? Elise asks, sipping from a plastic goblet. They’re going to a party for a friend of Sheba’s from Dalton. Sheba said she had to go for convoluted social reasons that were lost on Elise.

Me, I’ll be there, Sheba says, batting her eyes through the vanity mirror.

It’s the night before graduation and Elise’s mother, Gilda, and her sister, Sophie, are traveling from their home on Nantucket Island to attend the ceremony tomorrow. They planned to take a 6:30 a.m. ferry, then rent a car and drive thirteen hours from Cape Cod to Chapel Hill. Elise tilts her phone to see if they have texted her back. The screen illuminates, revealing a thread of unanswered blue bubbles. Have you passed through Baltimore yet? Elise wrote to her mother at ten a.m. It’s the first time they’re coming to visit her on campus. At two p.m.: Did you stop for lunch or are you eating gas station food? At five p.m.: I’m worried if you drive straight here you’re going to be exhausted at graduation. She thumbs over to Sophie’s text message box and types: Hi. Where are you? Mom isn’t answering.

She wedges the phone into her wristlet and retrieves a drugstore eyeshadow compact from the side pocket.

Oh, can I use that too? Sheba asks. Elise wipes her ring finger on the underside of the rug and passes the compact to Sheba.

Sheba swabs the lilac shadow into her lid creases. Is your family close? she says.

Elise presses her chin into her shoulder and massages the bone. Yeah. They should be here by morning.

After drinking four proseccos mixed with Chambord and ice, Sheba requests a car at the dormitory pickup point. When they arrive at the party close to midnight, Sheba doesn’t say hello to anyone and immediately finds a clearing in front of the audio system. The woman whose music is plugged into the speakers wears a round, fuzzy hat and has a thin blunt tucked behind her ear. She plays the entirety of Robyn’s album Honey, followed by Frank Ocean and LCD Soundsystem, in glittering, psychedelic succession. Sheba places a hand on Elise’s collarbone and snakes her torso to the music. Elise mirrors her moves, mesmerized by the copied dresses skimming at their thighs. She offers Sheba a finger, coyly, as if to beckon, and Sheba closes her lips around it, which startles Elise, the balmy inside of Sheba’s mouth. The pad of her finger touches the hard ridge on her palate and the fleshy bumps on her tongue. Surely her finger must taste bitter, like sweat and vanilla moisturizer? But Sheba cackles and so Elise plays it off too. She spins and brushes the saliva onto her forearm, leaving a wet, chilly trail. The strap of her dress falls down her shoulder and she lets it hang there: a dare. It feels good for Elise to feel like Sheba, for Sheba to feel like Elise. They’ve enmeshed so intimately, they see themselves in another person who shares no resemblance, no common history, not even many interests. Sheba, the Heiress, with an attractively large mouth, milk-­white skin, and dandelion-­seed hair. Elise, the Child of Immigrants, with a soft, easy body and a complexion the color of oversteeped chamomile tea.

Elise returns to her dorm room around three a.m. after eating a cup of mashed potatoes. Sophie tried to call her earlier in the night, but Elise’s phone died while they were at the party. She kicks off her ballet flats and falls asleep belly down, a blot of cherry gloss smeared across her pillowcase. She wakes at nine a.m., Graduation Day, and plugs in her phone. Instantly, Sophie’s name lights up on the screen.

Are you here? Elise answers, rubbing her forehead. I just woke up.

Elise, I’ve been trying you all night, Sophie says.

What’s going on? My phone was dead.

I can’t find Mom.

She sounds hurried and a little hoarse.

Where are you? Elise sits up, bracing her shoulders against the wall.

I’m still on Nantucket, Sophie says. She never came to the boat.

Elise pauses, trying to assess whether or not she’s joking.

Very funny, she says, and peeks over the windowsill at a girl in a blue baseball cap. Ha ha. There you are. I can see you prancing around the parking lot.

Sophie’s breath scratches against the receiver.

I’m not kidding, Elise. I’m still on island.

Elise reaches for a water bottle on her bedside table and takes a hard sip.

Sophie—­my graduation is in two hours. Have you tried calling the restaurant?

They haven’t seen her, Sophie responds. The pitch in her voice rises. She didn’t go to work yesterday because we were supposed to drive to see you.

When was the last time you talked to her?

The night before last. She told me she’d meet me at the ferry in the morning. She had to do some prep work in the kitchen before we left. So I waited and waited for her by the docks. Our boat left, and then the next one left. After a while I called Mr. Wagner and asked for a ride, thinking maybe she’d gone home.

Why didn’t you call me sooner?

I did call, last night! You weren’t answering. Sophie sighs stiffly. Don’t blame this on me. I was ready to come. I can’t drive all that way by myself. I’m not even old enough to rent a car!

Elise drops the phone against her chest.

I’m not blaming you, she says into the speaker.

They are silent for a long time. Elise kicks off the covers and pulls Sheba’s dress over her head. She wouldn’t be shocked to learn her mother had panicked last minute and decided she couldn’t come. Except that she had been animated about the graduation for weeks; she had said she wanted to pack homemade beijinhos and pão de queijo—­Elise’s favorite—­and she kept sending her photographs of a stuffed bear wearing a cap and gown. Elise presses her thumb into her temple.

Let me call you back, she tells Sophie, and they hang up.

She tosses her phone to the bottom of the bed, holds the water bottle above her face, braces herself, and pours a trickle onto her forehead. The cold lingers on her cheeks, drips into her mouth. She had heard stories about twins, miles apart, one waking in the night if the other twin was hurt, the alarm transferred between their bodies. What did it mean that she hadn’t sensed that her younger sister had been calling her throughout the night, trying to reach her?

Elise wraps a bath towel around her body and palms the hallway walls down to Sheba’s room, enters the security code, and curls up on the sheepskin rug. Sheba shifts in her bed.

Are you dying of a hangover? she says, squinting.

Elise shakes her head. Sheba pushes the curtain open an inch, letting in a strip of sunlight.

Did you shower already?

Elise flicks a drip of water off her chin.

Sophie called. She can’t find our mom.

Sheba tosses her duvet aside and crawls onto the floor. They hook arms while Elise explains to her what happened. Sophie waited. Not at work, not at home. A boat left, then another. Do you have any idea where she could be? Sheba asks. Elise takes a deep breath and says: I don’t. My mom’s good at hiding.

She confesses to Sheba that she only has eighty-­six dollars in her bank account. Sheba reaches under her bed for her laptop and opens up an internet browser.

What do you need? Sheba says. A plane ticket?

Elise trains her eyes on her lap, not wanting to ask. Sheba goes ahead and purchases the next available flight from Chapel Hill to Boston. From there, Elise will board a Peter Pan bus to the coast, where a ferry will deposit her back on Nantucket, her childhood home, for the first time in four years.

Are you still coming to graduation today? Sheba asks, though she knows Elise can’t. Her voice sounds suddenly fragile. She closes her laptop and places her palm over Elise’s knee.

I need to pack and get to the airport, Elise says.

I’ll come with you. I don’t want to graduate alone.

Your whole family is here, Sheb. Elise’s throat clenches. You can’t leave.

My family is unbearable. Sheba lowers her head. Just stay a little longer. For me?

Elise smiles, then covers her face with the crook of her arm.

Take lots of pictures. I’ll photoshop myself in later.

F***, Sheba says. She presses her hands against her stomach. This is heavy.

Elise feels it too—­her ribs, a slab of concrete.

About the Author

Gabriella Burnham
Gabriella Burnham’s debut novel, It Is Wood, It Is Stone, was named a best book of the year by Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Publishers Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. She holds an MFA in creative writing from St. Joseph’s College and has been awarded fellowships to Yaddo and MacDowell, where she was named a Harris Center Fellow. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. Burnham and her partner live in Brooklyn, New York, with their two rescue cats, Galleta and Franz. More by Gabriella Burnham
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