The English Experience by Julie Schumacher
Published by Doubleday
Publication date: August 15, 2023
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Humor
I leaned into dark fiction last week so thought I’d give everyone a break and go light with the latest novel in a series I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. The English Experience is the third novel by Julie Schumacher chronicling the misadventures of hapless English professor, Jay Fitger. Fitger is the department head at the aptly named Payne University—an institution of higher learning whose school song is Oh Payne, Our Payne.
It’s the midyear break and Fitger is looking forward to three weeks off. Instead, he finds his department’s budget being held hostage unless he agrees to help another professor who’s fallen ill. Which is how he finds himself heading to England with 11 students. That none of them are majoring in English, the trip was in a different field of study, and Fitger’s puts minimal effort into a last minute hodgepodge syllabus, doesn’t seem to be cause for concern from anyone in the Payne administration.
It’s a simple enough plot, but the details and the formatting are what make The English Experience such fun reading. The first novel in the series, Dear Committee Members, was epistolary, composed solely of the letters of recommendation written by Fitger for students (whether they’d taken his classes or not). This time, the novel is comprised in large part of essays written by the students, the first being their applications for the study abroad program. The group includes identical twin art students, a business major, one young man who thought they were going to the Caribbean and packed accordingly, a young woman who has never left home before, a bickering couple, and a pre-law student who sees the patriarchy and colonialism everywhere.
Fitger’s curriculum consists of a brief daily essay about the places they’ve visited and even this is deemed onerous by the students. So, when he’s injuried their first night in London, the group roams free almost from the beginning. Meaning on the first day, rather than going to the British Museum, two students decide to fulfill a lifelong dream and go to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum to see the J. Lo and Selena.
The trip is one mishap after another, the accommodations are subpar, and the tour guide paid for by the school does nothing more than read each site’s brochure out loud to the students. As if his last nerve hasn’t already been worked, Fitger’s ex-wife is interviewing for a new job and has asked him to write a reference letter for her. Their relationship is stoical on her part and yearning on his, but a yearning that manifests as criticism and unsolicited advice. To the point that when he asks if he can make a suggestion, she replies she’d rather hit herself in the head with a tire iron than hear his suggestion.
This is high level sarcasm and snark in the best way possible, but even as things come apart at the seams, Schumacher keeps the characters from being caricatures with subtle forays into their personal lives. It makes The English Experience funny, but not silly—a combination I love.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Doubleday in exchange for an honest review.*