“Vinegar Girl” by Anne Tyler; Hogarth (240 pages, $25)
Is there any living American writer who has written as well about marriage as Anne Tyler? Or who has consistently been as honest about the disconnect between fantasies of lovebirds living happily ever after and the often sad but also funny miracle of two separate people actually staying together?
In “Vinegar Girl,” Tyler brings these talents to the altar of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which eight writers are creating novelistic adaptations of various Bard plays. Tyler’s novel weds her career-long focus on the quirks of marriage to one of Shakespeare’s strangest unions: Petruchio and Katherina in “The Taming of the Shrew.” It’s a heavenly match.
Shakespeare’s ostensibly shrewish Katherina is now Kate, a 29-year-old preschool teaching assistant in Baltimore. She lives at home with Bunny and Louis: her spoiled and ditsy teenage sister and her widowed father, a medical researcher convinced he’s on the verge of a major breakthrough.
Tyler’s Petruchio is Pyotr, Louis’ lab assistant. Like Petruchio in Shakespeare’s play, he’s a foreigner. That’s where the plot thickens in “Vinegar Girl”: Pyotr’s visa is about to expire, and Louis can’t afford to lose him. Louis’ solution: A contrived marriage between Pyotr and his oldest daughter. She doesn’t otherwise look to be getting married anytime soon.
And why not?
Because Kate speaks her own mind and then some, in a world where outspoken women are still liable to be disparaged for the same behavior that prompts praise of male peers as confident and aggressive.
Kate has no compunction telling parents of her preschoolers that their darlings aren’t necessarily exceptional. She was asked to leave the college she’d been attending for describing her professor’s explanation of photosynthesis as “half-assed” — this strains credulity as a plot point, but plot also wasn’t Shakespeare’s strong suit.
Kate can be judgmental regarding others’ foibles; as with Katherina, it’s a convenient way of pre-empting how often others judge her, “dark-skinned and big-boned and gawky.” “Nobody,” we’re told, “had ever called her sweet.” Pyotr calls her “vinegar girl.”
And he means it as a compliment. “In my country they have proverb,” he tells her at one point, in his awkward English. “Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.”
Much as Petruchio initially woos Katherina for her fortune, all Pyotr initially wants from Kate is a green card. But as with the pair in “Shrew,” what these two lost and lonely souls discover is how much they have in common, as smart and strong-minded people leagued against a world of conformists, none of whom can truly see what makes Kate special.
Truth be told, Kate can hardly see it herself; having been viewed by others as a modern-day shrew for most of her life, she’s gradually come to see herself as one, which is among the reasons she has no friends and isn’t sure she wants to marry anyone, let alone a man like Pyotr whom she neither knows nor loves.
And yet it’s Pyotr — a milder version of Petruchio, just as Kate isn’t nearly as rough around the edges as Katherina — who helps Kate see her supposed deficiencies as strengths, while also giving her permission to fully embrace herself and thereby appreciate him.
As with the best stage productions of “Shrew,” love creates a fundamental equality between the pair at the center of Tyler’s novel; critics apt to castigate Shakespeare’s play for its supposed sexism repeatedly miss this underlying truth.
Tyler misses nothing. Yes, in her best novels about marriage, from “Breathing Lessons” (1988) through “A Spool of Blue Thread” (2015), the canvas on which such truths appear is bigger and more textured; in comparison, “Vinegar Girl” is a bit of a lark. So was “Shrew.”
But this jeu d’esprit embodies all the reasons readers love Anne Tyler: It’s fun, lighthearted, clever, compassionate and filled with Tyler’s always extraordinary love for her characters, liberating them here to love each other.
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