Writers typically aim to give the reader a protagonist who is likeable. Most of us don’t want to spend hours of our life getting to know protagonists who leave us cold inside, central characters who are so odd or so unlike ourselves in some basic way that we end the book loathing them.
In The English Teacher (ISBN 0-87113-897-2, $23), novelist Lily King offers us, at least for the first half of the book, a character who seems so emotionally disjointed that we may have trouble developing much sympathy for her problems. After leaving her home in Texas in her early 20’s, Vida Avery lives on the campus of Fayer Academy, a prestigious school on the coast of New England. Here she teaches English and raises her son, Peter. She wins the outstanding teacher of the year award several times though we never see her in the book except at her worst as an instructor.
After marrying Tom Belou, a widower with children of his own, Vida reveals parts of her personality that bemuse and shock both Tom and the reader. We learn that she hasn’t done much in the way of helping raise Peter. She doesn’t cook meals for him or engage in any sort of activities with him or even enjoy his company. She seems unable to function sexually with Tom in any normal way. (King doesn’t give us many details here, but we get the idea that she just keeps refusing him.) Vida begins to drink heavily, to criticize the children, and to avoid contact with Tom. The principal of the school places her on probation for swearing at her English students and for making rude, often bizarre comments in class.
Eventually, Vida’s strange, unexplained behavior brings about a confrontation with Peter and with the rest of the family, and Vida disappears from the house. In the morning, just before the beginning of classes, Peter sees his mother lying on the ground outside. He drags and carries her, dead drunk, to her car, checks her purse, and decides on the spur of the moment, despite the fact that he is underaged, to drive across country with his mother to his Aunt Gena’s house.
The remaining pages of The English Teacher describe that trip and show us the changing relationship of Vida and Peter in the subsequent months. Although King does explain to us the source of Vida’s emotional distance from people — she was raped shortly after accepting her first teaching job — it was irritating to have to find that out so far into the novel. Even more baffling was the marriage of Vida and Tom, given her emotional coldness and Tom’s genuine warmth. Since we see so little of their courtship, we are left to ponder without any real hope of an answer why Tom would have married someone so negative and cold as Vida.
Despite my frustration here, The English Teacher is a finely crafted and pleasurable book much worth reading. King’s characters seem real, and the disasters, large and small, that beset them strike me as real as well. She captures the fragility and coolness of the motherless Belou children, particularly in Stuart, a brilliant young man who likes reading Eastern religions but is temporarily lost in terms of his future. Tom Belou seems incompletely drawn as a character, as if the author herself couldn’t make up her mind as to why he would come to love Vida. However, the rest of the characters — Peter, the strong and wise Gena, even the minor members of the faculty at Fayer — draw us strongly to them.
King’s style helps create this reality. When we read her, we feel as if she was exploring the characters with us, telling us about them, but also making sure that we understand that her characters, like real human beings, have secrets and often live cloaked in mystery. Here, for example, we learn why Vida never offered consolation to a close friend on the death of her teenaged son:
Vida avoided the front office now, but she could still hear Carol’s laugh occasionally, spilling down the hallway. Within moments she would rise and pass in front of Vida once more. What could she possibly say to her now, now that she’d missed the funeral, neglected to call or write, had been unable, the first week of school, to catch her alone, though she had tried, she really had. Carol couldn’t know about the pages of notes, the hours of research, the pleasure she’d taken in finding just the right line. Because of this terrible misunderstanding they had barely spoken all fall (she’d sent her a wedding invitation and Carol had checked the regret box, offered no words at all), and they used to be such friends.
King includes many other treasures in her book — Vida’s discussions of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a book whose story so much resembles her own; Stuart’s beautiful encounters with girls every night on the lawn outside of the house; and the keen insights into the ways we both live and try to escape our lives. Here’s a book that is a cut above most mainstream novels, a book that challenges us to engage fully its premises and arguments.