LitStack Review: Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

by Sharon Browning

Vinegar Girl  (Hogarth Shakespeare)
   The Taming of the Shrew Retold
Anne Tyler
Release Date:  June 21, 2016
ISBN 978-0-8041-4126-0

In October of 2015, Hogarth, an imprint of the publishing giant Penguin Random House, launched a literary series where Shakespeare’s works would be “retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today.” Five out of a planned eight novels in the series have been published thus far, including Vinegar Girl, a retelling of Shakespeare’s comedy, The Taming of the Shrew, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Anne Tyler.

Vinegar Girl tells the tale of Kate Battista, a 29 year old woman who moved back home after she was kicked out of college for telling her botany professor that his explanation of photosynthesis was “half-assed”. Now she takes care of her absent-minded, somewhat removed, eccentric scientist father and 15 year old coquettish sister, Bunny (their mother, who was absent at best, died when Bunny was born). And she gardens, even though their yard has too much shade to grow vegetables or many types of flowers. And works as a teacher’s assistant at a local preschool, even though she doesn’t particularly like children.

Children like her, though. Parents and school administrators, not so much. You see, Kate is pretty blunt, not so much outspoken as unwilling – perhaps even unable – to sugarcoat, deflect, or mitigate what she has to say. Which at times puts her at loggerheads with “polite” society, as shown in this interchange when Kate is called in to her supervisor’s office:

“Emma Gray,” Mrs. Darling said. She was certainly wasting no words today.

Emma Gray? Kate’s brain went racing through possibilities. There were none at all, as far as she knew. Emma Gray had never been a problem.

“Emma asked who you thought Room Four’s best drawer was,” Mrs. Darling said. She was consulting the notepad she kept beside her telephone. “You said” – and she read off the words – “I think probably Jason.”

“Right,” Kate said.

She waited for the punch line, but Mrs. Darling put down her notepad as if she thought she’d already delivered it. She laced her fingers together and surveyed Kate with a “So there!” expression on her face.

“That’s exactly right,” Kate expanded.

“Emma’s mother is very upset,” Mrs. Darling told her. “She says you made Emma feel inferior.”

“She is inferior,” Kate said. “Emma G. can’t draw worth a damn. She asked my honest opinion and I gave her an honest answer.”

“Kate,” Mrs. Darling said, “there is so much to argue with in that, I don’t even know where to begin.”

“What’s wrong with it? I don’t get it.”

“Well, one thing you might have said is, ‘Oh, now, Emma, I’ve never looked at art as a competition. I’m just so thrilled that all of you are creative!’ you’d say. ‘All of you doing your best at whatever you’re trying to do.'”

Kate tried to imagine herself speaking this way. She couldn’t. She said, “But Emma didn’t mind; I swear she didn’t. All she said was, ‘Oh, yeah, Jason,’ and then she went on about her business.”

“She minded enough to report it to her mother,” Mrs. Darling said.

“Maybe she was only making conversation.”

Unlike Shakespeare’s Katherine, Anne Tyler’s Kate does not have an acid wit meant to belittle, just a no-nonsense one that is honest without filters. And Ms. Tyler’s Petruchio is also skewed to a slightly different hue, to an equally wonderful effect.

Pyotr Cherbakov has been Dr. Battista’s research assistant for almost three years. Pyotr was brought to the USA on an O-1 visa (reserved for individuals with extraordinary abilities or achievements) when he was 25, a wunderkind in autoimmune systems, and Dr. Battista is loathe to lose him. But funding for their research is drying up, and Pyotr will have to return to his own country when his visa expires in two months, unless another way is found for him to stay – like, say, marrying an American.

Pyotr is large, blonde, a bit obtuse when it comes to many social interactions, not exactly fluent in English although he delights in learning new idioms. He doesn’t seem to have a guileful bone in his body.  He carries the same kind of artless confidence as Kate, but rather than coming from a place of insensate conviction, his comes from a kind of naiveté, a purity of belief that everything will work out. (In a wonderful twist, in the few times when that belief system is directly challenged, Pyotr becomes aggressive and almost brutal, but thankfully we only get a glimpse of this; still, it hints at a depth of character that we can appreciate without bogging the narrative down in exploration.)

The major crux of the story, of course, is the manufactured relationship between the somber, no nonsense Kate and the cheerful, no worries Pyotr. Kate is hurt by her father’s insistence that she help the family cause by marrying his assistant, since it’s unlikely she’ll have any other serious relationships. Pyotr is fully aware that Kate not only doesn’t love him, she probably doesn’t even like him, but that doesn’t keep him from a kind of coltish wooing in an attempt to make her more amenable to keeping him around. He has no problem with it being a marriage of convenience, and no intention of forcing more upon Kate than her signature on the marriage certificate and a semblance of a relationship, for Immigration purposes – but he also doesn’t want her to be miserable.

The deviations of Vinegar Girl from The Taming of the Shrew are obvious: there are few subplots with Kate and Pyotr always at center stage – but there are enough touchstones to keep both stories grounded in each other. Kate is not a cynic and a shrew as much as an unapologetic pragmatist, Pyotr is not a fortune seeker as much as a good natured fellow who just wants to stick around. They may not be compatible, but their conflict is with expectations, not of each other – even though the incompatibilities between them are touching, humorous, and seemingly insurmountable. Until, of course, they aren’t. Maybe.

Vinegar Girl is, frankly, a delightful book. Kate is a marvelous character, and Pyotr strikes all the right notes to keep from becoming a sidekick. Kate’s father is ridiculous and perfect in being the unwitting cause for angst on many levels, and Bunny injects the narrative with an appreciated anchor to “normalcy” while still being comedic. The novel could stand on its own, actually, but is even more enjoyable seeing its relationship with the Bard’s work. A fine read, indeed.

This is the second Hogarth Shakespeare book I’ve read (the first one being Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, a magnificent take on The Tempest), and I’ve been impressed with both thus far. I’m curious, and full of anticipation, at what the next one may bring.

~ Sharon Browning

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