Book review: The English Teacher, by Lily King

The English Teacher, Lily King, Grove Press, 256 pages

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Oh, oh, oh, what a beautifully written book!

King’s prose shines in this bewildering story of the love and anguish between a mother and son.

Vida, who teaches high school English, is harboring a terrible secret, and one she’s kept inside for years. After she marries Tom Belou, the local tailor (do they still have tailors nowadays?) and moves into his house with her teenage son, Peter, everything begins to unravel.

The story is intriguing, engaging and expertly paced, yet it is King’s voice that carries the book. Alternating between Vida and Peter’s perspectives, King keeps readers off-guard by throwing in stabs of subtle, almost black humor that burn with truth. Peter’s sections are especially endearing; King perfectly captures the hopeful awkwardness of adolescence.

There are so many good things about this book: Vida’s slow and dreamy slide downward; Peter’s obsession with the Belou’s dead mother; Tom’s fumbling attempts at love; Stuart’s anti-establishment viewpoints; Vida’s English students’ self-absorbed disdain for literature; Walt, the old and smelly dog; and Gina, the odd aunt who lives in California.

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Lily King, I think I sort of, kind of, love you.

I found myself reading phrases over and over, marveling at the cadence, the cleverness, how snugly sections fit together, as if they were jigsaw puzzle pieces.

Here’s a section about Peter imagining his stepbrother’s death:

Peter thought how if Stuart died there would be only girls at his funeral. He could see them in tight black dresses all in a row, crying into soaked Kleenexes. Eventually they’d notice each other and the service would turn into a brawl, culminating at the casket, where they’d tear the clothes off Stuart’s corpse. The plump one would confess to her nights in the back of the car and the others would have to bow down and give her the crown: Stuart’s underwear.

Yet this is also a sad story. And as Vida’s inevitable breakdown progresses, as her layers peel off and truths surface, the tone becomes sadder, yes, but also more lovely, and more hopeful.

She didn’t want to explain. She wanted to think about this idea of love’s being cast onto someone like a spotlight, making her shimmer and glow for a little while, lending her qualities she doesn’t possess. Is this really what we do to each other, find a victim and shine the light of all our dreams on them?

I highly recommend “The English Teacher.” It’s a beautifully orchestrated, emotionally complex and strangely tender book.

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