Hasn’t Jay Fitger suffered enough? That’s what readers of Julie Schumacher’s novels Dear Committee Members and The Shakespeare Requirement might think upon beginning The English Experience, the final installment in her excellent trilogy. Fortunately, Schumacher’s skewering of academia remains sharp as ever, and more of Fitger’s hilarious frustrations are in store for fans.
He’s still at little-known Payne University, now as chair of the English department. His five novels are out of print. He has been divorced from Janet, a senior administrator at the law school, for more than a decade. Part of the appeal of these books is how Schumacher deftly helps readers sympathize with a 63-year-old man weighed down by those sandbags while making his travails funny and charming.
The provost calls Fitger into her office before the start of winter break and, “after arranging her features into a facsimile of cordial goodwill,” offers him “truly a plum” opportunity: As part of “Experience: Abroad,” a program he argued against, he gets to teach the three-week “Experience: London” class starting in January. He says no, but the provost offers persuasive arguments, including London’s theaters and museums, tea with scones, and the threat of cutting off his funding unless he agrees.
Soon, Fitger and 11 undergraduates are on their way to England, with planned stops in London, Oxford and Bath. Much of the narrative is devoted to those undergraduates and the papers they have to write each day. The topics range from an “object of interest” at the British Museum to the historical figure of their choice. One of the pleasures of The English Experience is the way Schumacher uses these essays to flesh out her characters, a group that includes a young woman who has never been away from her cat and a young man who was under the impression they were going to the Cayman Islands and packed accordingly.
Fitger struggles gamely to keep his charges happy, a tough task made tougher by a sprained ankle early in the trip, a student who keeps skipping off to other countries and Janet’s request that he write a recommendation letter for an out-of-state job that will take away the woman he still secretly loves.
Some running gags go on too long, but fans of the first two entries will find much to like here. “What can happen in three weeks?” Fitger asks to assure himself the trip won’t be as bad as he anticipates. He finds out, uproariously, in this worthy final adventure.