THE ENGLISH TEACHER
By Lily King
Atlantic Monthly. 244 pp. $23
For a former English teacher, picking up a novel called The English Teacher required a leap of faith. There's the risk of running into that egomaniac so widely adored in stories about English teachers, a subgenre that reached its low point with Robin Williams's mawkish performance in "Dead Poets Society." Michelle Pfeiffer was hotter in "Dangerous Minds," but she followed essentially the same lesson plan, with the same test results: one student dead and a nation inspired.
For the millions of responsible teachers more interested in explaining literature than saving souls, such portrayals are an embarrassment to the class. And so it was a relief to find that the heroine in Lily King's new novel makes a fascinating counterpoint to these celebrated emotional leeches. Vida Avery is the best teacher at Fayer Academy, a wealthy prep school on an island off the coast of New England. During her 15-year career, Vida has been offered every honor and position such a school can bestow on its finest, but she's resisted these allurements. She remains cloistered in an old attic classroom, a position that simultaneously emphasizes her modesty and her specialness.
Vida's legendary classes on English and American literature lead students through discussions of themes, characters, settings and styles. She tolerates no distractions, tangents or sloppy expressions in speech or prose. When her sophomores try to draw her off track with personal questions, she immediately brings them back to a novel by Thomas Hardy: "Let's talk about Tess. She's far more interesting." Rather than coyly encouraging their intimacies, she feels "impatient with them for stepping behind the curtain of her private life." She doesn't want them to love her; she wants them to love literature.
But we quickly learn that Vida's pedagogical discipline stems from her unhealthy avoidance of real life. "She wasn't interested in the present," King writes. "Moments in novels were unforgettable, while in real life the details slipped quickly away." Something has happened, we're led to believe -- something ghastly and unthinkable that caused Vida to abandon her past and remake herself 15 years ago when she appeared on the steps of Fayer Academy with a baby. Since then, she's lived on the island campus, raised her son with hawk-like attention, gained a reputation for being a strict but brilliant teacher and avoided all emotional entanglements.
Which makes her sudden marriage to a recent widower, Tom Belou, a complete shock to everyone -- including herself. "What had she done?" she keeps asking herself. "She wished she'd never said she loved him. She was just being polite, returning the compliment late one evening." But now here she is, shattering the safe little life she's managed to construct for herself and her son and throwing them both into a new house, with new children (Tom's three) still grieving for their dead mother. From the wedding night on, Vida is a mess: frigid in the bedroom, nervous in the kitchen, shrill at the table. She has no idea what to do with these new stepchildren, how Tom can love her, or why she married him.
And neither do we. As in her debut novel, The Pleasing Hour, King has taken the old vaudeville advice to heart: "Leave 'em wanting more." She may, in fact, be too devoted to that maxim. The English Teacher suffers from a kind of literary anorexia; there's not enough meat on these characters or enough connective tissue on the bones of this plot. Though we eventually learn what trauma forced Vida to reinvent herself all those years ago (not too hard to guess), we never get answers to the more important questions raised by these characters' relationships in the present. (Why does she get married? Why does he stay with her?)
The wedding takes place in 1979, on the same day the U.S. embassy staff is taken hostage in Iran, which serves as a provocative but ultimately irrelevant metaphor for Vida's sense of entrapment. More promising are the frequent references to Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which Vida begins teaching the Monday after her wedding. But here, too, the allusions are more illusory than illuminating, and even readers who find Hardy unbearable would have to admit that he never leaves us feeling uninformed.
King is at her best with her portrayal of the teenage children forced together by their parents' inexplicable marriage. Vida's son is a particularly endearing character: "He would begin his life as a regular person," he thinks, "who ate his meals not in a cafeteria but in a kitchen." At the wedding reception, he can barely contain his excitement: "Tonight they'd go home to a regular house on a regular street, husband and wife in the master bedroom and four kids sprinkled in rooms down a hallway." In scenes that are funny, touching and sad, that naive hope is severely tested but not entirely crushed by the awkward integration with his new siblings, who view him and his mother as interlopers.
Unfortunately, the marriage at the center of the novel never attains the emotional substance of this side story involving the stepchildren. King is a wonderfully engaging writer who creates characters and situations we can't resist, but I kept raising my hand with questions about The English Teacher -- oh please, over here! -- until the bell rang and it was over. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.