- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

THE ENGLISH TEACHER

By Lily King

Atlantic Monthly Press, $ 24, 244 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY

Vida Avery is a hard woman, though Tom Belou, the widower who marries her, doesn’t see it. He compares her to a heron. With its long and deadly beak, stilt legs, and streamlined body, a heron could be considered a hard bird. But that is not in Tom’s mind when he spots Vida at awards ceremony where she is being honored as the best teacher in the school. It’s her “long neck and delicate bones” that Tom falls for. Perhaps he thinks she has a heron’s sharp perceptual skills also. If so, he is mistaken.

While Vida has finely tuned perceptions about literature, she is ignorant or dumb about most things, including both contemporary books and contemporary events such as the Iranian hostage crisis that is unfolding in the early days of her marriage. She is not good with people either. When Tom confides his distress about his first wife’s death, she has many helpful insights. “She’d been good at talking. She had that English teacher’s ability to communicate, to draw out meaning, to produce the larger picture. She had taken great interest in his children as characters.” But that’s all talk.

When it comes to dealing with his children as real people, Vida has a hard time understanding and reaching out to them ? as she does to everyone else. Typically, when her best friend’s son dies, she offers no condolences.

Nor can she reach out sexually. Vida is not ignorant about sex. She has a 15-year- old son, and she does not shirk an exploration of sexuality in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” the novel she is teaching to her 10th-grade class. But as Tom learns, patient sexual efforts elicit little response unless she goes to bed with a couple of drinks inside her. Nor is she good at marriage in other ways. After living on a private school campus and eating cafeteria meals for 15 years, she is not really up for buying groceries and preparing dinner for a family at the end of her work day.

The thing is Vida herself is a trauma victim, and the reader who remembers the details of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” will realize that Vida and Tess share experiences.

Not that that makes Vida sympathize with Tess. Though her teaching of Thomas Hardy’s tale lives in her students’ memories, she hates the book, believing Tess to be a foolish young woman who got what was coming to her. Ironically, this is the source of her impact on her students. “She had come to realize that it was her own lack of sympathy with the girl that galvanized them. By the end their attachment to Tess herself was fierce, and their devastation at her demise profound.”

Readers may feel a similar lack of sympathy with Vida. She seems not only hard, but most of the time convinced of her own rightness and unresponsive to others. She soldiers on with her life, rather than strives to improve it. When Tom says, “I want you to share yourself with me. I want you to tell me how I can make things better for you,” she responds, “I’m fine. You don’t need to do anything for me.” Hearing this, Tom drops his face into his hands, and so, no doubt, will many readers. By this point, Vida has lost a lot of the empathy they might once have felt with her.

Fortunately, “The English Teacher” is not entirely about Vida; it is also about her son Peter. He is poor at games and fears he will never attract girls, but unlike his mother, he is ever ready to engage with life and people. Having lived alone with Vida in a cottage on the school campus, he is delighted she has married and thus provided him with an instant family. He likes Tom and admires his three children: Stuart, a college dropout who is into Taoism; Fran, a competent teen who Peter finds unbelievably attractive, and seven-year-old Caleb, who seems almost as charming as Peter himself. If Peter’s Fairy Godmother offered him three wishes, he would ask that these new siblings accept him, that Kristina, the girl he admires from afar would look kindly on him, and that Vida would tell him who his father is. Eventually all three are granted, but not before Vida falls apart, and Peter amazingly gets her across the country to California, where her sister lives.

Lily King is at her best with the teens in her story. While Vida eventually becomes a bit of a bore, her students, Tom’s children, and most significantly, Peter, jump from her pages, both individually as carefully delineated people, and collectively as a believable group of youngsters living near the New England coast in the later Carter years. King’s sensitive observations create this effect, and the structure of “The English Teacher” enhances it. Vida and Peter alternate as the centers of consciousness in each chapter, so we get two views of the same events from two people with different agendas and approaches to what is happening to them. For Peter this means embracing a new life; for Vida it means trying to pass as a normal person. Their stories finally come together in a dramatic ending that mercifully does not entirely mimic Hardy’s conclusion to Tess.

In using Hardy’s novel to indicate and counterpoint Vida’s predicament, Ms. King endorses Vida’s opinion of Tess. Yet “Tess of the D’Urbevilles” may have interested Ms. King too much for the good of her own novel. There is no fundamental esthetic reason for using Tess’s tale as the background to Vida’s and Peter’s. Ms. King’s failure to maintain her readers’ sympathy with Vida perhaps derives from a determination to critique Tess’ by offering another view of the effects of her experience. But as Vida learns, literature can be as poor a crutch in a novel as it sometimes is in life. When her friend’s son dies, Vida ransacks her library for healing quotations she might offer in sympathy but nothing in literature measures up to the tragedy in life. Just so, in Ms. King’s novel, “Tess of the D’Urbevilles” is inadequate to Vida’s dilemma. It acts like a set of clues in a cryptic crossword: intriguing and satisfying to solve, but also distracting. Hardy’s Tess steals attention from the outrage at the heart of Ms. King’s tale of Vida.

This distraction notwithstanding, “The English Teacher” has moments of real insight, some sensitive portrayals, and most significant of all, the narrative drive that testifies to a real storyteller at work. This is only Lily King’s second novel. It would be more compelling had she not staked Hardy’s Tess into its heart, but nonetheless it is worth reading, and Ms. King is a novelist worth watching.

Claire Hopley is a writer in Amherst, Mass.

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