Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The English Teacher by Lily King








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Lily King’s new novel, The English Teacher, engages readers on many levels. Protagonist Vida Avery is the best teacher at Fayer Academy, a prep school on an island off the New England coast. Her signature class highlights the way she teaches Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. There are ample parallels between Tess’ life and Vida’s which King reveals gradually in The English Teacher. After living as a single parent for fifteen years, she marries a widower, to the delight of her son, Peter, who has longed to be part of a larger family. Peter’s three new siblings lead him into a new way of living. Vida, on the other hand, becomes overwhelmed by her new emotional life, and allows the secrets from her past to be revealed. She is especially troubled about telling Peter about his father, and about how he was conceived. Here’s an excerpt, at the start of her new married life, from the beginning of Chapter Three, pp. 33-39:


On Monday Morning Vida woke up alone. Tom had left at five, off to some fabric sale in Massachusetts. She’d pretended to be asleep while he rose, took a shower, and returned to the bedroom to dress in the dark. The towel fell from his waist. It was like being in sudden possession of a horse, having this tall firm naked man beside her bed. What thin light there was fell on his pale buttocks and upper thighs, and she wished she could reach out and stroke them without him noticing and wanting to stroke her in return.

The loud nearly debilitating question that had pounded through her body like a pulse since the wedding reception—what have you done what have you done—subsided once he was gone, and she was able to fall back asleep until seven. She stretched her limbs in the enormous bed, her left arm and leg venturing across to Tom’s side, still slightly warm. She rolled over into his impression, and put her head just beside where his had lain. She thought of the grisly iron-gray hair at the end of “A Rose for Emily.” She would learn how to do this properly. “I promise,” she said into Tom’s absent ear.

The odor of food slipped through the cracks in the door: toast, bacon, something sweet but burned. Then voices, Fran’s and Caleb’s, not Peter’s, and the clatter and ping of utensils. All these voices, all this commotion, after years of waking to a silent house. Peter is fine, she told herself.

In the bathroom water hung in the air and smelled like Tom. She could see where he had swiped at the mirror to shave. The basin was clean of stubble but on the glass shelf above it a few tough bristles of his mustache were caught in a scissors’ bill. If only she were the girl she had once been. He deserved that. He deserved someone who would walk into this bathroom, breathe him in, and cave to her knees with joy and thanks.

But the sorry truth was she was eager to get to school where her life would resume its familiar course after this aberration of a weekend. Her body felt strange, like she might be coming down with something. The what have you done hammering was back. A shower and her school clothes would snap her out of it.

But her nakedness beneath the weak drizzle of water only re­minded her of failure with Tom, and she hurried to wash and cover up her body again. In his damp towel she leapt across the bedroom to her boxes. Close to the top of one she found her favorite gray cardigan and deeper down a soft shirt and denim skirt. From an­other she managed to pull out a pair of tights and her moccasins. She was not the flashiest dresser on the planet—no rival for Cheryl Perry, who taught French in clingy pants and short furry sweaters that swung above her perfect little bum. As she dashed across the room with her armful of plain clothes she remembered the sky-blue velvet dress her grandmother had sent her from Boston, the match­ing hat, and how she’d worn them to threads, despite the teasing and the Texas heat. Back in the wet warmth of the bathroom, she toweled her hair upside down into a damp frizz, tamed it with Tom’s comb, then realized she had no clip. She couldn’t teach with her hair down. She rifled through every box but found nothing. She probably had a spare in the car, and the thought of being in her car with Peter, headed toward school, was a soothing one.

She moved swiftly down the corridor. They didn’t have much time—school was a good fifteen-minute drive from here, not the forty-second walk it used to be. Her wet hair thwacked at her back.

And today of all days she had to start Tess of the d’Urbervilles with her tenth graders. And Peter, too, was starting it in the other class with Lydia Rezo. She had always dreaded his reading Tess. And here it was.

In the living room, Stuart was curled up sideways on the sofa in a little egg, his eyes fixed on the morning news.

“This is some serious shit,” he said to the knees just below his chin.

Weren’t high school dropouts supposed to be sacked out until noon, instead of following international crises at 7:22 in the morn­ing? Still, there was something self-pitying in his fascination with this aggression halfway around the world.

“How about a little air in here?” It was always so stiflingly close in this room. Only one of the four windows actually opened. What they need, she thought, shoving it wide open, is to toughen up a bit. People die—and die unexpectedly. Both her parents were dead. That was hardly the worst thing that had ever happened to her. People disappoint and horrify you in a thousand different ways, Stuart, that you cannot possibly imagine. You move on. You move on, she told him with her eyes as she picked up his cereal bowl and juice glass and bade him a good day, whatever that consisted of.

She pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen. Walt scrambled and strained on the slippery linoleum to rise and greet her.

“Here you go. Here you go,” she cooed. She got behind him and hoisted his quivering flanks level to his front shoulders. He bristled—he didn’t like her having to help him—and headed for the back door as if he’d lived here all his life. Before letting him out she squatted down by his face. “You didn’t sleep in my room last night. Why not?” He put his head on her shoulder and sighed. His nose was cold where it touched behind her ear. She ran her hands from his skull down his neck and along his long rib cage: His hair was coarse and camel brown except on his face, which was a silky, distinguished white. No one knew what kind of mix he was, though people loved to toss out suggestions. Shepherd, collie, retriever, boxer, Great Dane—she’d heard it all. He prob­ably did have some Rhodesian ridgeback, because of how his hair tufted along his spine. She’d found him on the way out of Texas all those years ago, in a cardboard box at a gas station. He’d looked at her as if he knew exactly where she was going and why. She didn’t have those answers yet, so she paid the man five dollars and Walt slept on her lap as they headed East.

Walt sighed again, then lifted his head and pressed his face to the seam of the door, to the tiny wind blowing through. She let him out and when he just stood at the top of the back porch, she tapped at the window and said, “Go on, baby.”

He took the steps slowly, nearly sideways, his hind legs flopping together, then separating once on flat ground. He looked back briefly before trotting forward to sniff the snarled remains of a flower bed.

She had been aware, when she came into the kitchen, of others at the table, but once beside Walt she’d forgotten them altogether. It was as if all their noises had been suspended, and now, as she turned around, the memory of their chatter came back in a delayed but clamorous rush.

She was startled to see Peter among them, dressed, combed, with a plate of something in front of him. He usually emerged at the last possible minute. Relief rushed up, weakening her, relief and the awareness that her fear was just as strong here as anywhere.

Fran and Caleb were studying her, not with the respectful scrutiny of students on the first day of class but with cold, leery observation.

The smell in the kitchen was disarming. It was nothing like the slightly chemical, overcooked smell in the Fayer cafeteria in the morning.

“Good morning, early birds,” she said cheerfully, trying to es­tablish that playful authority she found so easily in the classroom.

“How old is that dog?” Fran said.


“Same as Peter,” Caleb said.

“Peter’s not sixteen yet.” Children could be so loose with their ages. Peter wouldn’t be sixteen until August. “Who’s the chef?”

“Fran is. Want some French toast, Mom?”

“Cup of coffee’s fine for me.”

“It’s over there.” Fran pointed to a percolator in the corner. “I just made a second pot.”

Vida hoped to find the mugs in the first cupboard she opened, but it took three tries. She scanned the counters and shelves for sugar.

“In the canister,” Fran said finally. She was clearly enjoying herself.

“You ready?” Vida said to Peter, scooping her schoolbag (the freshman quizzes uncorrected, Tess unopened, the junior author profiles untouched) off the hook with her free hand.

He nodded, but took his time with the few bites left on his plate. Fran slapped another piece of French toast on Caleb’s plate, then doused iii with syrup.

Vida felt she should ask when their bus came and if they’d done their homework, but they’d been carrying on without her inquiries all their lives. She asked instead if they would let Walt in before they left.

Peter walked ahead of her to the car, his knapsack stuffed with books he hadn’t opened all weekend. He wouldn’t get away with it; he couldn’t charm his teachers with an elaborate tale and heart­crossed promises.

The temperature had fallen further and though the ground still gave slightly beneath her shoes, the hard dead smell of winter seemed to be rising up from it. The trees in the yard jerked in the cold wind, trying to dislodge the few remaining clusters of brown leaves. It was a dreadful time of year. She hated teaching Tess, though for years she had been told it was her signature book. The experience of read­ing Tess with Mrs. Avery sophomore year was reenacted in skits and referred to in yearbooks. It lived on in countless mentions by remi­niscing alumni in the tn-annual bulletin. But for Vida, the book was a torture. She had never cared about that overly naive, peony-mouthed girl who is buffeted by a series of impossible coincidences from one gloomy town to another and across four hundred and six­teen pages before she gets her just deserts at the scaffold. She did have an appreciation for Hardy’s descriptions and his worries about the effects of the Industrial Age on the land and its people. She used to believe it was her discussions of this “ache of modernism” that made the book meaningful to her students, but she had come to realize that it was her own lack of sympathy for the girl that galva­nized them. By the end their attachment to Tess herself was fierce, and their devastation at her demise profound.

They got behind a garbage truck. Vida lit a cigarette as the two men in back leapt from the runner, separated to opposite sides of the street, hurled bags three at a time up and over the truck’s backside, and hopped back on just as the truck jerked ahead. White steam streamed from their nostrils. They wore no gloves and drank no coffee and yet they seemed warm and full of energy. They’d probably been up since three, and soon they would be done. They’d go to a diner for lunch—Reubens, french fries, a few beers. Then they’d sleep—at a girlfriend’s, or their mother’s, or in their own solitary bed in a one-room apartment on Water Street, their muscles tired, their bellies full, their minds thoughtless as cows. The truck stopped again, and the man on the left, having caught Vida’s covetous eye, grinned at her. She glanced quickly away in what felt like fright. The truck veered off then, but the acknowledgment made her uneasy for several more blocks, as if a character in a book had addressed her by name.

The sun hung small and naked above the rooftops, unable to push itself fully through the pale cloud bank. They passed a 7-Eleven and a launderette. In both windows middle-aged women stared blankly out. She thought again of Tess and wondered whether she might like it better if she assigned it in the spring.

Ahead of them the bridge to Fayer rose up in a high arc, and its sides were a series of thin squat rails, allowing for a full view of the harbor and its boatyards on the right and the open ocean on the left, with a few fishing trawlers heading toward the horizon. There was often heated talk, especially in the weeks following an accident, of building a wall on either side of this bridge, but Vida was pleased the view had remained, unimpeded by safety and common sense.

It ran nine-tenths of a mile and she took it slowly, like a tour­ist. Light poured into the car from all sides, an opaque blue waver­ing light, as they rose toward the height of the bridge. She loved the carnival-like ride of it, the web of patina-green supports above and the false yet convincing sense of sheer solidity beneath her tires. She remembered the few times last summer when she had crossed the water back to Fayer after an evening with Tom, and though she had felt at the time confused and conflicted, the memory now was peace­ful. She took a long sip of the coffee she’d wedged between her knees. They were falling now, falling through the early light over cold blue water. She felt happy and even slightly sexual until she remembered the two nights since her wedding, and the feeling recoiled.

“Why is your hair like that?”

Damn. Her hair. “Will you check in there for my barrette?”

Peter flipped open the glove compartment and plunged his hand into the mass of candy wrappers and receipts. “Nope. Nothing.”

Vida pulled out the ashtray, stuck her fingers into other dark cubbyholes of the Dodge’s dash, then slid her hand beneath the seat. “Damn.” In nineteen years, she’d never taught a class without her hair firmly yanked back.

“They have rubber bands in the office,” Peter said.

It was true. But she avoided the office, and Carol, now.


King’s writing is taut in The English Teacher, and those with deep knowledge of Hardy will be pleased with her homage to him. Vida’s pain and the complexity of her life’s journey combine to produce a memorable character, well-crafted by Lily King.


Steve Hopkins, December 22, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the January 2006 issue of Executive Times


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