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Past unravels attempt at a new life

Special to The Times

LILY KING’S first novel, “The Pleasing Hour,” was impressive for its confident and sensual rendering of a young American woman’s experience as an au pair in France. Especially notable was the novel’s accomplished handling of fluctuating points of view -- the au pair Rosie’s story, the perspectives of the three children she is caring for, even glimpses of their mother’s troubled past.

Happily, King’s second novel, “The English Teacher,” about a private school teacher who lives and works on an island off the New England coast, measures up to the first, again showing off the author’s marvelous range and gift for complexity.

Vida Avery is comfortable with her routine of grading papers and taking care of her son Peter, 15 and in high school at Fayer Academy, where she has taught since just before he was born. They live so close to the school that they take their meals in the cafeteria. But she has been dating Tom Belou, a recent widower with three children who disturbs her comfortable life. In the first chapter of the novel, Tom proposes, offering Vida a ring and a “magic dress” he has made in the family tailor shop. Tom seems gentle, well-intentioned, ardent. But Vida has mixed feelings. At the wedding, her son Peter seems more pleased with the marriage than his mother. He has yearned for a father, and to be part of a family.

Vida and Peter leave their island campus retreat and move into the Belou house in town. Peter rooms with the college-age son Stuart, who has a stream of girlfriends knocking on the window to call him out into the night. Fran, 16, and her younger brother Caleb are down the hall. Peter doesn’t know anything about the routines of the household and often feels at sea. His growing awareness of the presence of their late mother in the lives of the three Belou children is particularly moving: “She had died in this house.... She had touched everything he would soon touch. There was no place he could ever be in this house where she had not breathed.”

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The new marriage and the family adjustments do not go smoothly. Vida is unable to respond sexually to her new husband, and is awkward with his children. As she struggles to manage regular mealtimes and spend time with each child, it is clear that she is a loner thrust into a tightly knit family with a love of ritual fostered by the late mother. King’s depiction of each character in this blended family is nuanced and her descriptions of the interaction of the four new stepsiblings, with its poignant mix of cruelty, confusion and collaboration, is masterful.

Meanwhile, Vida’s school year is off to a rocky start. For the 13th year in a row, she is teaching “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” She knows the Thomas Hardy novel so well she can recite passages from memory. But this year, Vida has an odd reaction when the class discusses the book. What would happen to the man who got 16-year-old Tess pregnant? one student asks. “Nothing.... " another one answers. “He was a stud.” At this moment Vida is seized with terror. “It began so small, small as a pinprick, in her chest. It was the familiar sting of fear but then it spread, its great wings opening all at once, her breath gone, her mind seized like an animal caught in a trap.”

This and other moments of terror, along with her dreams and memories, open a door to Vida’s past. In poetic passages we learn that she has been living a lie, hiding from her past within the cocoon of Fayer Academy. We gradually learn the reasons for her ambivalence toward her son Peter, the mixture of love and anger that is announced in the mysterious first sentence of the novel: “That she had not killed him in her sleep was still the great relief of every morning.”

Vida’s inner turmoil causes her to behave in increasingly bizarre ways. Trying to accommodate her new husband’s sexual advances, she takes to drinking heavily. She makes inappropriate comments in class that draw attention from the school administration. Soon her life is in upheaval, her job at risk, her future in question.

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King’s pace falters from time to time -- Vida is a heartily self-absorbed soul with a tendency to slow things down. But the author offers brilliant set pieces -- the first Thanksgiving dinner with Vida as hostess; Peter’s efforts to protect a drunken girl from being molested at a party while denying his own urges; Vida’s outpouring of drunken grief when her beloved dog dies. And King brings this beautifully rendered novel to a dramatic denouement that is at once surprising and realistic.

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection “Stealing the Fire.”


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