In her first novel, The Pleasing Hour (2000), Lily King explored the complexities of family relationships, as viewed through the eyes of a young, unhappy American woman who has gone to France to work as an au pair. The English Teacher is also about family relationships, and again, the central character is an unhappy woman. However, though the title character of the novel, Vida Avery, is engaged in a daily struggle with rage, terror, and fear, to her students and her colleagues she appears to be a mature, rational woman, perhaps even a wise one.
During the fifteen years that she has been teaching English at the prestigious Fayer Academy, a New England prep school, Vida has honed the analytical skills of hundreds of students. However, she feels closer to the characters in the novels she teaches than to her students, her friends, or her fifteen-year-old son Peter. On an impulse, she marries a recent widower, Tom Belou. Almost immediately, however, she realizes that Tom and his three children will not submit to her analysis and then conveniently disappear into the pages of a book.
Peter has long accepted Vida's lack of affection toward him. However, he is as puzzled by her hostility toward her stepchildren as Tom is by her new frigidity in the bedroom. Fortunately, when Vida snaps, it is Peter who finds her and saves her life. After confessing her terrible secret, Vida is finally able to start down the road to an untroubled life.
One of the strengths of The English Teacher is that it is at least as much Peter's story as Vida's. Although the passages in which Vida reveals her feelings are essential if one is to understand her behavior, the story leaps into life whenever the author changes to Peter's perspective. It is then that Lily King demonstrates her insight into the often funny, often sad, but always complicated world of adolescence.