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The English Teacher by Lily King

The English Teacher (2005)

by Lily King

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Astonishing in its depth, I loved the fast-paced yet insightful nature of the book ( )
  Soulmuser | May 30, 2017 |
A sub genre I thoroughly enjoy consists of novels about English teachers and professors. I stumbled on a copy of The English Teacher by Lily King, after reading her latest novel, Euphoria. This is her second novel, and as I write this, I am awaiting delivery of her first.

Vida Avery is a single mother with a son, Peter, who is about 14. She teaches at a school located in a mansion previously owned by her grandfather. When the story opens, she has been at the school for awhile, and the headmaster admires her, but many of her students think she is too hard. Vida has a dark secret she has shared with no one. She begins dating, and accepts a proposal of marriage on an impulse. The marriage is a failure almost from the start. She begins drinking, and her colleagues begin to notice. Her husband pleads with her to open up, but she refuses. He begins to lose patience, and the couple starts a series of heated arguments.

Ever the English teacher, she spins a life for some waste collectors she has never seen. King writes, “The 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 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 acknowledgement made her uneasy for several more blocks, as if a character in a book has addressed her by name” (38). All these seemingly innocuous scenes connect to clues as to her past.

The faculty are a curious set of characters. They seem to go about their business, like whispers in the background. Only one of the male teachers shows any interest in Vida. King writes, “They had, every one of them, misunderstood her entire life. She had never yearned to marry as these people apparently thought she had. Brick Howells was hardly the only person to have attempted the fix up. How many times had she accepted a dinner invitation from one of them, only to find in their living room some recently devastated fellow wiping his palms on his slacks? You have so much to offer, she was often told, as if she had a tray of cigarettes and candy perpetually strapped to her waist. But these setups had stopped a few years back. Vida realized now, from their relieved, astonished expressions, that they had all given up” (60-61).

An interesting aspect of the story is Vida’s use of works of literature she was teaching as thickly veiled connections to her secret. One day, she fails to show up for school, and Peter finds her face down in a field. He manages to drag her to her car, put her in the back seat, and drives off with or without even a learner’s permit. He drives to California to see Vida’s sister. The English Teacher by Lily Ling is a suspenseful and riveting novel without being horrifying, and only at the end does the story explode.

--Jim, 8/31/16 ( )
  rmckeown | Sep 11, 2016 |
I like flawed and complex female protagonists, so I liked this book. Vida is an English teacher in a private school and the single mother of a troubled son, Peter. She impulsively marries Tom, a kind widower with three children. Between memories of trauma in her past, and the difficulty in adjusting to the newly blended family, she takes to drinking.

I can predict that some readers will be very frustrated with Vida through much of the book, but I think that's part of the point. People who have been traumatized can get stuck, and people who are stuck frustrate the hell out of people around them. Both Vida and Peter lack courage, and their journey in the book is the quest for courage. Allusions to Tess of the D'Urbervilles are weaved through the story, but thankfully the narrative rejects Hardy's fatalism. ( )
  CasualFriday | Jun 26, 2016 |
Extremely well-written and the plot unfolded at the perfect pace. The ending tied up a bit too neatly which was disappointing, but altogether an interesting read! ( )
  Mon_Ro | Feb 14, 2016 |
Title - The English Teacher

Author - Lily King

Source - The Scottsdale Public Library (ebook)

Summary -

Vida Avery is very much in control of her life, as far as appearances go. Yet she is pleasantly surprised when she wakes up every morning that she hasn't killed her son in her sleep. Vida is an English Teacher in Fayer, the school built on the family ancestral grounds that had once been her grandfather's. But change was coming into Vida's life. Change that seemed welcomed by all around her, her son, her colleagues, her friends. Everyone but Vida herself.

"...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..."

Vida accepts Tom's proposal of marriage and soon she and her son Peter are living with Tom and his family. Stuart the college drop out and eastern philosopher. Fran, the young beautiful girl that ignored Peter in high school, the youngest Caleb. But even more, in Tom's house, the ever present memory of Tom's first wife, the dead mother of his children.
In addition to this private upheaval in Vida's and Peter's lives is the necessity for Vida to teach both English classes together since the other English Teacher had taken ill. Both classes, twice the students, learning the Tom Hardy novel Tess of the d'Urbervilles. A novel Vida detested. A novel that filled her with her own self loathing.

"...Peter waited for someone braver, someone whose mother was not teaching the class, whose crush of four years was not two seats diagonally to the left, to ask exactly what had happened. But no one did.
"What name does she give the baby?" his mother asked. She looked around for other hands, then called on Helen, who had all the answers. She always did; even back in first grade he remembered her lone arm in the air.
"Sorrow," Helen said. And without waiting for his mother to ask why, she continued, "Because he was the result of her rape..."

Vida is unraveling. The control she held over her life and her career is slipping away. Her young marriage is falling apart as she finds she may not have really loved Tom after all. She just felt pressured into accepting his proposal. Her new family dislikes her as the memory of their mother comes between them daily. The pressure of taking care of both classrooms becomes to much and she finds for once she cannot control the discussions and opinions of her students. Vida is slowly coming undone.

"...I don't understand what happened. I thought you were-"
"Someone else?"
"Stop it. Stop finishing my sentences. Stop looking at me with that smirk like you can see all around me, like a character for you to analyze. You don't have to be a goddamn English teacher all the time. Just be yourself."
"And who do you think that is..."

But that is the issue for Vida. Who is she really? Is the person she became a lie. What of the secrets that she has held onto, the secrets that are seeping from her pores every single day as she losing control.
And what of Peter and his desire for the girl who is now his sister. What will happen to both Vida and her son Peter, when they finally face the truth of who they are.

Review -

The English Teacher is an incredible roller coaster of novel, the emotional swings will take you from one high to the next with drops of startling velocity. It starts off slow and the character of Vida is difficult to relate to. It is only later in the novel that you come to understand why. She is one dimensional in a three dimensional world. The veneer that keeps everyone, including her Peter, outside of her self and all that is her trapped inside. She has depths does Vida. Great pools of emotion. Pain and lost hope. Betrayals. But she has buried them so deep that without effort, even she cannot tell what was real from what is a fantasy.
Peter's character is another well crafted narrative. He knows there is something very wrong with his mother but he cannot figure out what it is. He naively believes that the marriage to Tom and the instant family will bring order to their lives and when Vida goes about destroying that hope his anger toward her for taking away the only family he may ever have is visceral.
In the end it is the truth and not the lies they have surrounded themselves with that binds them.
A slow start that builds into a very good read. ( )
  agarcia85257 | Aug 14, 2014 |
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Life is beginning. I now break into my hoard of life.
—Virginia Woolf, The Waves
For Tyler, who brought everything to life
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October, 1979
That she had not killed him in her sleep was still the great relief of every morning.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802142664, Paperback)

Chosen by the Chicago Tribune and Publishers Weekly as one of the Best Novels of 2005, Lily King's new novel is a story about an independent woman and her fifteen-year-old son, and the 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 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.

This is a passionate tale of a mother and son's vital bond and a provocative look at our notions of intimacy, honesty, loyalty, and the real meaning of home. A triumphant and masterful follow-up to her multi-award-winning debut, The English Teacher confirms Lily King as one of the most accomplished and vibrant young voices of today.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:22 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Fifteen years ago Vida Avery arrived from Texas alone and pregnant at 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 in solitude and largely through the books she teaches, but when she accepts the impulsive marriage proposal of ardent widower Tom Belou, the prescribed life Vida had 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 deceased 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."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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