Twenty-six-year-old college graduate Alexandra “Alex” Brennan is tired of her life in New York. She’s tired of working as a paralegal for her stuffy, grumpy boss and for his equally stodgy and stilted law firm. Alex has recently broken up with her boyfriend, Ethan, who was a virgin at twenty-six when he met Alex and who bases his conversations and humor on quotes from sitcoms. She is feeling disillusioned and is unsure of her life’s direction.
One evening, Alex runs into Ethan at a bar in New York. When Ethan asks Alex what she has been up to, Alex proclaims completely off the cuff that she has plans to go to Oxford for graduate school. Ethan laughs and tells her that she could never get into Oxford. Alex mentally files Ethan’s retort away and takes it on as a challenge – she decides that she will go to graduate school in England and the premise for the book English as a Second Language is born.
Alex does not get accepted into Oxford. However, she does get accepted into an unnamed graduate school to pursue a one-year masters degree in literature. Deeming herself Happy Graduate School Girl, Alex cajoles her father into financing her graduate school endeavor, and she crosses the pond to England and begins her new lease on life. Alex is feeling smug that she did get into a graduate school in England (never mind that it was not Oxford), and she is confident that she now knows where her life is headed.
Being a sociable type, Alex quickly befriends fellow graduate students. She becomes buddies with Cristina (the Spaniard) and Melanie (from England). Their group is rounded out with two male friends, Toby and Jason. The group spends vast amounts of time chain-smoking and practically living in the nearby pub ,where they become extremely inebriated almost daily (if not daily). In fact, it is a wonder that they make it to class. George, a fumbling and geeky housemate ,and Suzanne, an intensely annoying redheaded schoolmate, round out the cast of characters, although they are not friends of Alex or her peer group.
Alex quickly develops a schoolgirl crush on Sean Douglas, one of her graduate school professors. Having an attractive, young and brooding professor throws her off guard, and a good portion of the book entails Alex silently pining for Alex. A romantic liaison involving a peer group member and another student briefly spices up the plot, although English as a Second Language lacks enough “oomph” in its plot to make it a good chick-lit novel. While the author’s style is breezy and at times funny, the continuous drunken antics of Alex and her peers start to feel stale and recycled as the novel proceeds. It seems difficult to swallow that these people are in graduate school. They appear to be experiencing a “second adolescence,” where their behavior is reminiscent of undergraduate college where such a party-hearty atmosphere and general immaturity are common. Their drunken antics, philosophical rantings, and school-age crushes stop just short of annoying, but unfortunately only serve as “filler” in a novel that needs more of a plot.