The English Teacherby Lily King
“Beautifully written and carefully observed . . . King is a wildly talented writer.” —Claire Dederer, Chicago Tribune
Unanimously praised for her first novel, The Pleasing Hour, which was called “Splendid . . . powerful . . . [and] so assured it’s hard to believe the book itself is her debut” by The New York Times Book Review, Lily King has written a thrilling successor. In The English Teacher, King uses her superb craftsmanship, effortlessly suspenseful pacing, and tenderly observed insight into marriage, motherhood, and family to expertly limn the life of an independent single mother and her fifteen-year-old son, who is on a circuitous path toward a truth she has long concealed from him.
Fifteen years ago Vida Avery arrived alone and pregnant at elite Fayer Academy. She has since become a fixture and one of the best English teachers Fayer has ever had. By living on campus, on an island off the New England coast, Vida has cocooned herself and her son, Peter, from the outside world and from an inside secret. For years she has lived largely through the books she teaches, but when she accepts the impulsive marriage proposal of ardent widower Tom Belou, the prescribed life Vida has constructed is swiftly dismantled.
Peter, however, welcomes the changes. Excited to move off campus, eager to have siblings at last, Peter anticipates a regular life with a “normal” family. But the Belou children are still grieving, and the memory of their recently dead mother exerts a powerful hold on the house. As Vida begins teaching her signature book, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a nineteenth-century tale of an ostracized woman and social injustice, its themes begin to echo eerily in her own life and Peter sees that the mother he perceived as indomitable is collapsing and it is up to him to help.
The English Teacher is a passionate tale of a mother and son’s vital bond and a provocative look at our notions of intimacy, honesty, loyalty, family, and the real meaning of home. A triumphant and masterful follow-up to her award-winning debut, The English Teacher confirms Lily King as one of the most accomplished and vibrant young voices of today.
“A marriage of single parents is more often the stuff of sitcoms than of serious novels, but King uses it to great effect in this intense character study. . . . King renders Vida’s seething withholding in a free, direct style that captures everything . . . She’s also excellent on the children’s reactions to each other as the households come together and then separate, dramatically and perhaps permanently.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“In her follow-up to her award-winning debut, The Pleasing Hour, Lily King crafts a domestic drama with the adrenalin-fueled beating heart of a thriller, offering readers the best of two traditionally very different worlds.” —Elle
“[A] beautifully written follow-up . . . an engaging and moving read.” —Abby West, Entertainment Weekly
“Beautifully written and carefully observed . . . King is a wildly talented writer.” —Claire Dederer, Chicago Tribune
“Spare but acutely observed . . . This fine book demonstrates how a short novel can illuminate difficult real-life issues with sensitivity and insight.” —John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“This wise and moving novel is much like Sue Miller’s fiction. . . . [The] narration alternates very effectively. . . . But the heart of the story is its lovely depiction of wounded people struggling to find solace and stability in each other.” —Anne Stephenson, Arizona Republic
“King has superbly crafted the psyche of these principal characters. . . . [She] has delved into the depths of two lonely souls and treated us to a wonderful experience.” —Nandini Bandyopadhyay, Tampa Tribune
“From its powerful beginning, Lily King’s The English Teacher soars. It is a book filled with surprises; a novel that takes unexpected turns. . . . King is a masterful storyteller. . . . Do read The English Teacher. . . . An uplifting book with a message of hope.” —Lloyd Ferriss, Portland Press Herald
“King beautifully delineates the grieving children in all their confused steps toward recovery.” —Kirkus Reviews
“An emotional expose of a mother’s ungovernable fears and the courage to speak her truth.” —curledup.com
“Lily King writes equally movingly and beautifully about both the large, dramatic and the small, seemingly inconsequential acts that destroy and define family.” —Lily Tuck, winner of the National Book Award for The News From Paraguay
“King delicately delves into the fragile bonds holding families together, even when logic favors their dissolution . . . [She] writes with subtle clarity, displaying an intuitive understanding of the vulnerable psyches of teenagers, and with pinpoint perception of her characters’ inner lives.” —Booklist
Praise for The Pleasing Hour:
“Splendid . . . powerful . . . so assured that it’s hard to believe the book itself is her debut.” —Jacqueline Carey, The New York Times Book Review
“Delightful . . . Introduces a very talented writer of great promise.” —Lelia Ruckenstein, Washington Post Book World
“A rich first novel about families lost and found from a promising writer with an ear for the kind of language from the heart, that touches deeply.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Though she tells lean stories, King can brush lush descriptions with majestic colors and vivid, fleeting pleasures.” —The Seattle Times
“Beautifully wrought . . . what people do to each other and the legacies they leave are King’s central subjects, and in her deft hands they’re explored in complicated, ambitious ways that leave us feeling as if we’ve become fluent in a foreign language.” —Karen Shepard, USA Today
“[An] impressive debut from a writer who knows how to uncover the saving impulses of the heart.” —Lisa Shea, Elle
A Book Sense Selection
One — October, 1979
That she had not killed him in her sleep was still the great relief of every morning.
Not that she actually believed he was dead when he slept in on a Saturday. It was merely a leftover ritual, the weak ghost of an old fear from years ago when she awoke and waited, barely breathing, as close to prayer as she had ever got in her life, for a single sound of him: a little sigh, or the scrape of his feetie pajamas across the floor. He’d scuffle into her room still warm and puffy and half asleep, and the piercing relief of him collided with the horror of possessing such a fear and the dread of its return the next morning.
Now here he was at quarter of eleven, finally, his boots whacking the stairs, missing steps, his shirt unbuttoned but with an under-shirt beneath (she didn’t know what grew on his chest now and didn’t want to).
He shook out half a box of cereal and ate it in a few loud smacks at the other end of the table. Still, what sweetness flooded beneath her skin! She did not, could not, let him see it, and instead told him to remember to close his mouth please.
His back to her, carrying the empty bowl to the sink, he said he was going over to Jason’s. To take apart a television.
She watched him cross the soccer fields diagonally—no home games today, thank God—and disappear down the path to Jason’s house. All the delicious, fleeting relief of him went, too.
She returned to the mounds of essays in front of her. Within a few hours she reached the bottom of the freshman papers and moved on to the juniors’. Peter didn’t come home for lunch, so she forgot to eat.
Vida began to contemplate canceling her plans for the evening. Tom would want to touch her again, scrape his mustache against her neck. Her armpits grew slippery. The telephone on the wall urged her on—a virus, a migraine. A quick call and it could all be over, the sweating, the rancid taste, and the sensation that she was no longer inside her body but beside it. And yet it was this disassociation that immobilized her, prevented her from getting up from her grading and walking the five paces to the phone. Instead she continued to watch the pen in her hand make small thick checkmarks beside the strong passages, and larger aggressive comments beside the weak, and then, below the last line of each essay, deposit a grade. She always graded more harshly in the afternoon before an evening with Tom Belou.
Peter answered the door. When had he come home? She hadn’t heard the doorbell. It would be Lloyd or Wendell, the custodians, looking for an extra hand to move some chairs from one wing to another. But then there was a strange swishing in the hallway, coming at her, and Tom himself appeared in her kitchen. He was wearing a parka. She’d never seen him in any sort of coat. The temperature had dropped twenty degrees since last weekend. It was beige, with a belt he let dangle at the sides.
“You off to climb Everest?” she said, feeling trapped in her seat at the table. She didn’t go to great lengths primping before she saw him, but she did brush her hair and her teeth and change out of her old slippers with the stuffing bulging out. Until this moment their encounters had been quite formal, with precise beginnings and ends, no sleepovers, no weekends away. Neither had ever dropped in on the other like this; their children had never met. Their touching was tentative, nearly absentminded, though her memory of it was acute, a confusing ache of pleasure and shame. No intercourse. Miraculously, they were in silent agreement about that.
Her dog Walt nudged Tom’s hand with the long bridge of his nose, but Tom didn’t respond as he usually did. He just stood there in the doorway, his eyes flicking over her impatiently. He was going to break it off. It couldn’t have been clearer to her. This was just the way he would do it, in person, in a parka, perhaps after a trip to the dump. He needn’t bother. It was hardly anything to her. She had enjoyed his company, his lack of demands on her, but that couldn’t have lasted much longer.
“I’m sorry,” he said, pointing to the sea of essays, “I know I’m interrupting.” His hands were red from the cold.
Let’s just get it over with, she thought, anger and humiliation prickling her throat. Her mind felt calm, detached, but her heart had another engine altogether and thudded painfully.
“I just had this . . . I was planning to . . . but it just made me so crazy, all the . . .” He walked the length of the kitchen, away from her, the bulky parka sleeves squealing as his arms flailed about. She wondered if he’d stitched it himself, this awful coat.
She wished she’d never said she loved him. She was just being polite, returning the compliment late one evening. But now it turned out he’d been mistaken. Of course it had been too soon. His wife had only been dead a short while. She wished he’d just spit it out and go home.
He reached the far counter, spun around, and with three long strides he was there before her, hovering over her and her work. He smelled of something familiar. Maple syrup, maybe. His eyes finally settled on hers. “I love you, Vida. I do. But it’s not enough for me. It’s not enough to simply love you. I wish for everyone’s sake it were but it’s not. I want to marry you.” A laugh or a sob, Vida couldn’t tell which, pushed its way out of his chest. “I want to marry you.”
Out of the parka came a ring, no box, that clinked as it landed in her teacup. “Damn,” he said, fishing it out with thick shaking fingers. “I’m sure you’ve had better proposals than this. I’m just not that type.”
It was, in fact, her first proposal. Another woman, a better woman, might have confessed this. She never would. She had let him believe, along with everyone else up here, that she’d been married to Peter’s father.
The ring hovered now, too, caught in the tips of his fingers. Suddenly she understood the true role of the ring. It forced, as T. S. Eliot would say, the moment to its crisis. Without it, a proposal was just a question, a query, and the response could be the beginning of a conversation that might last weeks, or years. But the ring demanded the final answer within a few seconds. You either reached up and took it, or you kept your hand on top of Hank Fish’s essay on Emerson. And once you took it, you’d have an awkward time of giving it back. But to not take the ring, to leave it untouched, to watch it go back into the parka pocket, the proposal marked with a fat F—who could deliver that blow? She heard Peter upstairs, crossing the landing to the bathroom. She’d always imagined these moments filled with ecstatic conviction, but this moment was about ending the embarrassment, stopping the shallow breaths through Tom’s nostrils and the little laugh-sobs he was trying to suppress. It was about Peter upstairs and her terror of the mornings and all the years they’d been alone together in this house.
Whether she spoke or simply nodded she’d never know. All she knew was that the ring, several sizes too big, was slipped on her finger and Tom was kissing her, then burying his face in her hair, then kissing her again. Everything felt rubbery. She had the sense, despite his enthusiasm, that it wasn’t really happening this way, that they were rehearsing, hypothesizing, and that the real moment would happen later, would happen differently.
Tom called up to Peter, who launched himself down the stairs immediately, his lack of athleticism embarrassing to her in Tom’s presence. His face was bright red. He already knew. Even before Tom made the announcement, clutching her at the shoulders, she saw that Peter already knew.
“I am so psyched,” he said, pumping Tom’s hand, then raising both fists in the air as if it were the successful end of a soccer game. “Congrats, Mom,” he said to her and pecked her on the cheek. There was a bit of a bristle to his chin. “This has been a long time coming.” He was beaming at her, though he barely knew Tom. A handful of hellos at the door, that was all.
They celebrated with cookies and cider. She filled the glasses, passed the plate, but still she was somewhere apart from her body, and this moment was somehow apart from the rest of her life. Again and again she felt they were practicing, all three of them, and each time she smiled at Tom or Peter, she felt they were acknowledging that, too.
She walked Tom out to his car. She hoped that this would serve as their date, that she could have the rest of the evening to herself to finish her work. But he hugged her again and said he’d pick her up at seven.
He got into his car, then leapt out. “I almost forgot.” He reached into the backseat. “A little engagement present.”
It was a blue box with his insignia on it, Belou Clothiers. He had been that certain she’d say yes.
“When I was a very little boy,” he said, leaning against the car and pulling her toward him in a gesture of familiarity that was probably familiar only to his wife in the grave, “My grandfather made a dress for a customer, a very simple dress. A few weeks later a friend of hers came in the shop and ordered the exact same dress. She said her friend had told her it was a magic dress. After that he got another request, and another. My grandfather must have made twenty-five of those dresses. I forgot all about them and then when I saw you I remembered. I remembered the dress exactly, right down to the pearl buttons. I don’t know why.”
She lifted off the top. It was yellow, a color she never wore. She was relieved that it was a summer dress with tiny capped sleeves: it would be at least eight months before she’d be expected to wear it.
“It’s lovely,” she said, holding it up to herself. Dear God, what had she done?
“It’s magic.” He kissed her again. The kisses were different now—firmer, possessive.
Tom the Tailor made me a dress, she imagined telling Carol, though she knew she wouldn’t.
She watched his car turn off her gravel road and onto the paved school avenue, which carried him past the mansion and all its new limbs, then the tennis bubble, then the hockey rink, in a long arc before finally setting him back on the main road. She would have to leave this campus, this haven of fifteen years, if she actually married him.
“Aren’t you freezing?” Peter called to her from the front door. There was a thrill, a wildness, in his voice she’d never heard before.
She opened the trunk of her car and tossed the box in. What’s in the box, he’d ask when she got a little closer. He was going to have so many questions this afternoon. She stopped on the path to the house and lit a cigarette to buy herself some more time.
1. At the heart of the novel is the quest of Vida to find truth through fiction. The epigraph for The English Teacher, “Life is beginning. I now break into my hoard of life,” is from Virginia Woolf. How would you describe Vida as an English teacher? What are her strengths? What are her dramatic limitations? What distinguishes an English teacher from other teachers? Does living in the world of books hamper Vida, or does it expand her experience? Do the students of an imaginative English teacher—and readers of good books—suspend disbelief in order to grow or live on multiple levels?
2. Why does Vida hate teaching Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Why is she afraid of Peter reading it? (See pages 33-38.) What is perverse about her students’ taking the book to their hearts, adding it to Mrs. Avery’s legendary status? How does the teaching of the novel continue to correlate with events in the book? See the last page, for instance.
3. Peter is largely resistant to his mother’s obsession with literature. He feels held at arm’s length by her retreats into poetry and fiction. Is that a fair assessment on his part? Describe one time when he, too, understands something better, more immediately, by recalling a poem.
4. “Memory does its work underground. Beneath consciousness, a past moment finds its kin all at once. Like a fish returned to its school, it frolics in remembered waters, and stirs up others. . . . Yet even awful, unlivable memories want to be relived; the fragments yearn to be whole once more” (p. 103). For Vida the “unlivable memory” is always near the surface as well as beneath consciousness. Does the passage evoke other characters, too? Have you known people who, like Vida, are disabled by earlier traumas? (For instance, there has been great attention recently to people’s retrieved memories of childhood abuse. Do you give any credence to those who say, “Let it go—just get on with your life”?) How is Peter an inciting force for Vida’s dealing fully with her rape?
5. “Vida’s a hoot, isn’t she?” Peter heard Tom’s brother say to him at the door. “She is,” Tom said, confused, like he’d bought an appliance with too many features’ (p. 94). How does Tom try and fail and then ultimately succeed in understanding and winning the complex, educated, and wounded Vida? What are the qualities that serve him in the end? Can you think of particular moments that show his generosity and strength? Think of his burying Walt, sharing his workshop with Peter, confronting Vida about her drinking. Others? What about the yellow dress?
6. “She figured that all marriages, if they lasted, ended up here in the land of quiet regret” (p. 152). We remember that this is Vida’s first try at marriage. What have been her observations about the institution so far? About her school colleagues? About her own parents? It is their strains that drive her to find a new reality in books. Vida is tantalized by the Hardy poem in which a young man is lured by his ideal of love, “not by the poor girl he has been projecting his illusions onto” (p. 105). Vida feels Tom is always asking, “Why aren’t you who I thought you were?” (p. 104). Is Tom unrealistic in his hopes for Vida? Are there other characters who idealize someone in the book? Does King suggest that bedrock reality (disillusionment?) is a requirement for a strong marriage? Or is it a starting point for a mature relationship of any kind?
7. What is Peter’s preoccupation with Mary Belou, the phantom mother in his new house? (Peter also wonders if his own mysterious father is dead and waiting for him—when that figure is not raking leaves!) What is it that Peter needs from the now mythologized Mary? (See page 101.) Is there some resolution for him later?
8. Recall some scenes of both lively humor and poignancy. For example, think of Peter’s getting trapped in the nuptial bedroom (p.28), wild to escape this lunatic moment. And Vida, true to form, in her schoolroom faced down by Tom, “grew bored by his performance. She had the impulse to get up and grade a few papers until he had finished” (p. 148). Can you think of other funny moments, all the sharper because they ring true to human nature?
9. What is it about the hostages that both compels and reflects the characters in the novel? It is one of the few issues that gets the family involved in something beyond themselves. How have the characters themselves been held hostage? For instance, when they are fleeing across the country, Peter reflects, “It wasn’t just her silence for the past four days but her silence all of his life” (p. 209). How does it take many levels of diplomacy, perseverance, and perhaps luck to release the hostages that are the people in this book?
10. Discuss the varied angles of vision in the novel. How do we learn about Vida, for instance, other than through her own thoughts and actions? We know that characters perceive external reality through their own lenses and needs. Give some examples. How do we know whom to trust? One surprise is the diner waitress who observes and reflects on a young boy and an old woman. How does this section add to our knowledge of Peter and Vida’s odyssey? Elsewhere, which are the most interesting shifts in points of view?
11. How is Walt a touchstone for the family? Older than Peter, where did he come from? And how is he important to the pivotal events of chapter seven?
12. Would you say that perhaps the central drama, the conflict that needs to be resolved, is the one between Vida and Peter? Is it this relationship that finally allows others to fall into place?
13. King is unorthodox in many ways, not intimidated by convention in her novel. Does Vida reflect this originality, particularly King’s gimlet eye? When? What other characters show odd and fresh human reactions? For instance, when Tom is questioning Peter about Vida, the boy “wished they didn’t have to talk about her. He wished he just lived with the Belous without her getting in the way” (p. 127). When else does King reveal dead-on observations or memories of what it’s like to be a teenager, in school, at home, or at parties?
14. Mary Karr, writer of memoirs and poetry, has defined a dysfunctional family as “any family with more than one person in it.” Is that definition apt for King’s book? How do parents and children fail one another in The English Teacher? What do they have to risk to grow closer? What are the added challenges of the stepfamily? Is this ultimately the way it is with families: intricate webs, interwoven, fragile, tenacious, voracious, and beautiful?
15. How does style reveal substance in chapter twelve (pp. 213-15)? Does Vida’s internal dialogue, recollecting Joyce, put us inside her breakdown? And what about her aimlessness, paranoia, and nighttime panic attacks? How does she begin to work her way out?
16. What does California represent in the book, as opposed to Texas or New England? How is it important to Gena? Stuart? Peter? Vida? Fran? Tom? When do you begin to suspect that freedom is a central theme? (Is it logical that Vida’s fear of killing her son is tied up with her own need to be free? Of what?)
17. How well do we know Stuart and Fran? Is it mostly through Peter’s eyes? Do the brother and sister change in the book? Remember the scene where Peter revolves the picture cube in the living room, trying to find out who Stuart is. From early days Peter longed for siblings, to be part of a family. He hoped his mother’s marriage ‘meant, ultimately, a real union, a true synthesis, without any loose ends’ (p. 27). Is this goal achieved in the end? For everyone?
18. “It was all about courage. To live even a day on this earth required courage. All those things they read in school—The Odyssey, Beowulf, Huckleberry Finn—were all about courage but the teacher never said, You may not have to kill a Cyclops or a dragon but you will need just as much courage to get through the day” (p. 236). What are times when courage is particularly required of people in this book? Is it a quality that can be learned? Do characters help each other find it?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy; To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf; The Evening of the Holiday and The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard; all books by Alice Munro; Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen; Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner; The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne; A Room with a View and Howards End by E. M. Forster; The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald; Independent People by Halldor Laxness; The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead; The Centaur by John Updike; Beloved by Toni Morrison; Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter; Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee; Atonement by Ian McEwan; Bel Canto by Ann Patchett; At Weddings and Wakes and Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott; Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout; The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel; The Pleasing Hour by Lily King