Monday, August 15, 2016

'Vinegar Girl' by Anne Tyler


Kate Battista feels stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but their parents don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner. 

Dr. Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr, all would be lost.

When Dr. Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to bring her around?

Genre: General, contemporary, women's fiction. Shakespeare knock-offs.

I just found about the Hogarth Shakespeare project when I started this book. It seems Crown Publishing is on a mission to have some of Shakespeare's works re-told by well-known novelists of today, and this contribution by Anne Tyler is based on 'The Taming of the Shrew.' That was a pretty sexist text. Even the title can come across as offensive in our times, whether or not you're a feminist. The male lead character, Petruchio, sets out to make the opinionated Katherina into a more compliant and obedient bride. It's not something I can imagine (or would want) translated into the twenty-first century. I was curious to see how Anne Tyler would handle it.

In this story, Kate Battista (the Katherina character) is the elder daughter of Louis Battista, an intense scientist. She works as an assistant at a childcare centre, because she's run afoul of her supervisors at Uni and feels this is all she can get. Kate's younger sister Bunny (the Bianca character) is the traditional bimbo who aims to attract boys with her prettiness and frivolity. Their father has a young international research assistant named Pyotr Shcherbakov (the Petruchio character) whose visa is about to expire. Since he's the best assistant Louis ever had, the old man cooks up a plan to talk his daughter Kate into marrying him, just so he can keep his protege in the country.

Pyotr is one of the best and most interesting characters in the story, but I was disappointed that Tyler never took him as far as she could have. He's introduced as an orphan, and from time to time he drops brief stories and hints about his lonely, alienated childhood and youth in a country far removed from theirs, This is what begins to warm Kate toward him. But it's never quite enough! I kept expecting more unfolding revelations, helping our own affection for him to grow. I got to the last couple of pages and realised that what we had was all we were getting. It was a bit disappointing, since the potential was there to add so much more.  

I found Kate's work and social dilemmas more interesting than her romantic one. She's a direct and honest person who calls things as she sees them. That sounds like a positive trait, right? Well, in this story, people with power endlessly try to force her to modify her behaviour. Mrs Darling, the pre-school director, threatens to fire Kate unless she develops more 'tact and diplomacy' when dealing with parents and pupils. Kate realises that she's really being ordered to skirt around doling out pleasant sounding half-truths and outright lies, as everyone else does. So the story gets us wondering whether people who say they value honestly really mean it.

In Shakespeare's play, the other characters believe Katherina is someone who genuinely needs to be tamed. In 'Vinegar Girl', we get to question whether Kate's version of 'shrewishness' is a bad thing. She's witty, observant and free-speaking at the start, and I was pleased to find that she was still a witty, observant and free-speaking woman in the epilogue. In Anne Tyler's version, being 'tamed' turns out to be gaining a more understanding point of view toward others, particularly her new husband and other men in his position. This turns out not to be a bad thing.

I found the story a bit too heavy with annoying and difficult relatives. Toward the end I was getting really sick of the silly extended family. They took valuable word space from the main part of the story, which should have been Kate's budding relationship with Pyotr. What was there between the two of them was fun, but it wasn't half enough. As it was, he managed to get her to warm to him with more ease than I think he should have.

However, it was a quick, fairly enjoyable read, with a simple and fun message not to dismiss romance, no matter how contrived the circumstance seems to be. Someone recommended this as a light, holiday beach read, which I'd agree with.

Thanks to Crown Publishing and Blogging for Books for giving me a copy through Net Galley.

3.5 stars

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