Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

>> Tuesday, September 18, 2018

TITLE: Vinegar Girl
AUTHOR: Anne Tyler

PAGES: 237
PUBLISHER: Hogarth Press

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

‘You can’t get around Kate Battista as easily as all that’

Kate Battista is feeling 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 the adults 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…

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 win her round?

Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew asks whether a thoroughly modern, independent woman like Kate would ever sacrifice herself for a man. The answer is as individual, off-beat and funny as Kate herself.
Vinegar Girl is part of Hogarth Press's Shakespeare project, where bestselling authors take his plays and rewrite them for the modern world. Several are out already. For instance, Margaret Atwood has taken The Tempest and set it in a theatre course in a modern prison (Hag-Seed), while Jo Nesbø has Macbeth and Duncan as policemen in a drug-infested 1970s industrial town (Macbeth).

I'm sure those were challenging, but they couldn't have been any harder than what Anne Tyler took on. Making The Taming of the Shrew into a modern romantic comedy? Surely that couldn't be done! But it could, and she did.

Kate Battista has found herself living with her father, the archetypal absent/single-minded scientist, and younger sister, basically keeping house for them. She's not some sort of model of domesticity (actually, she's very forthright and direct, and a bit socially awkward), but things drifted, and here we are.

Her father is at a very delicate stage in his research, one that depends on his assistant at the lab, Pyotr. But Pyotr's immigration status is just as delicate, and it looks like he could get deported. The obvious solution to Dr. Battista's problem is to have his daughter marry Pyotr, which will sort everything out. Kate, however, is not too enamoured of the idea, and isn't shy about saying so.

I thought Vinegar Girl did the retelling element really well. It played with the source material in a very fun way, taking what I find completely infuriating and gross about the play and twisting it in a way that works. For instance, the things Petruchio says come from his being a mysoginistic arsehole. Pyotr sometimes shows similarly insulting lack of tact, but from him this comes from his lack of understanding of American social niceties. And somehow Tyler manages to do this while not making it feel like "hah hah, look at the stupid foreigner!" (something I'm a teeny bit sensitive to).

The book was also hilarious. Part of that is just Kate's deadpan point of view and observations, but a big part of it is also about the increasingly farcical plotting, which stays just on the right side of unbelievable. Pyotr's and Dr. Battista's attempts to convince Kate that this is an excellent idea are preposterous and completely ridiculous, but they fit their characters so well that they seem like exaggeration, not wholesale invention.

It even works as a romance. It soon starts becoming clear that for Pyotr, the attempts to get Kate to marry him are not just about not getting deported. The parts of her behaviour that are tutted at by society he finds refreshing and wonderful. He and Kate are similar in the ways that matter, and yet different enough that they make up for each other's faults. I bought the romance completely.



Fernande,  20 September 2018 at 13:25  

Hello Rosario. I really like Anne Tyler but tend to lose track of her (the last one I listened to was A Spool of Blue Thread, which was terrific), so thanks for reminding me about this novel which I'm really looking forward to. And thanks also for the earlier review of Elizabeth Peters' Copenhagen Connection. I didn't ever get very far with the Amelia Peabody series, but Peters' more contemporary romantic suspense were great fun and one of my earlier exposure to the genre. I particularly love her clever independent heroines, and the wry humour throughout.

Rosario 22 September 2018 at 04:39  

Hi Fernande, I hope you'll enjoy it! A Spool of Blue Thread was wonderful, I've read it twice already. You know she's got yet another one out this year right? Clock Dance. I haven't read it yet, but it sounds good as well.

There'll probably be a few more Elizabeth Peters reviews coming up, I suspect. I have really fond memories of pretty much all of them, and I haven't reread them for a while, so.... :)

Malvina 22 September 2018 at 06:09  

I truly loved Vinegar Girl. I had no idea how Anne Tyler was going to translate the play 'acceptably' for today, but she pulled it off brilliantly. I also laughed all the way through the book. Magic.

Rosario 22 September 2018 at 07:11  

Malvina: I'm glad you gave it a shot, because it was seeing your review on goodreads that gave me the push to pick it up!

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