Anne Tyler has done it again.
The last time I wrote about her, I was in a snit. She’d killed off my favorite character halfway through the novel I was reading, and I was not happy.
I’m writing this time because she’s made me laugh. The book is Vinegar Girl, a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and in it she kills no one at all. She must have had a wonderful time writing it.
For a quick recap: Shakespeare’s shrew is Katherina, daughter of Baptista and older sister of the gentle Bianca. Afraid Katherina, whose reputation precedes her, will never receive a proposal, Baptista tells two young men eager to marry Bianca that his older daughter must marry before the younger. The suitors recruit Petruchio to woo Katherina; Katherina resists, but finding him her intellectual equal, agrees to marry him. Then Petruchio sets about “taming” his bride. At the end, Petruchio presents her to the public as the model of a sweet-tempered, obedient wife
Tyler’s Katherina is Kate Battista. Ten years before the story begins, Kate was invited to leave college after telling her botany professor his explanation of photosynthesis was “half-assed.” Her medical research scientist father made no fuss about her expulsion because he agreed the explanation was half-assed.
Since then, Kate has worked as a teacher’s aide at the Charles Village Little People’s School, where she spends a lot of time in Mrs. Darling’s office, being counseled in the need to use tact, diplomacy, and restraint when speaking with parents. For example, when Jameesha’s father asked her to do something about Jameesha’s finger sucking–Jameesha has a “habit of sucking her two middle fingers, with her pinkie and her index finger sticking up on either side like the sign language for ‘I love you'”–Kate told him not to worry: “Chances are she’ll stop soon enough, once her fingers grow so long that she pokes both her eyes out.” Mrs. Darling says she must develop “some social skills. Some tact, some restraint, some diplomacy.” Difficulty navigating the school’s “mysterious” etiquette has Kate on what Mrs. Darling calls “thin ice.”
Kate also runs the household and takes care of her father and her fifteen-year-old sister Bunny. Taking care of her father includes delivering his oft-forgotten lunches to his lab and doing his taxes. Taking care of Bunny includes preventing her from getting too friendly with her “Spanish tutor,” next-door neighbor, Edward Mintz, whose mother says he has “that Japanese disease . . . the one where young people shut themselves in their bedrooms and refuse to go on with their lives.” Bunny, who was normal until about the time she turned twelve, also has the “irksome habit” of “turning declarative sentences into questions.” Bunny isn’t easy to deal with, and Kate has been dealing with her since their mother died, when Bunny was six years old.
Working at a preschool and being a family manager isn’t the life Kate expected to have, but when the story opens, she’s not expecting anything to change. Then her father introduces her to his research assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov.
When they meet, Kate says, “Hi,” but Pyotr says, “Vwwouwv!” That’s the kind of thing men often say when they first see Kate, “due to a bunch of dead cells: her hair, which was blue-black and billowy and extended below her waist.”
(She stopped getting her hair cut when she was thirteen because she couldn’t take any more of the “Chatty Cathy act”:
“In the beauty parlor. Talk, talk, talk; those places are crawling with talk. The women there start going before they even sit down–talk about boyfriends, husbands, mothers-in-laws. Roommates, jealous girlfriends. Feuds and misunderstandings and romances and divorces. How can they find so much to say? I could never think of anything, myself. I kept disappointing the beautician. Finally I went, ‘Shoot. I’ll just quit getting my hair cut.'”)
Then Dr. Battista brings Pyotr home to dinner. And snaps photos of her and Pyotr with his cell phone, which he never uses because he’s a little afraid of it. And tells her that in two months, Pyotr’s visa will expire and he’ll have to leave the country, and he’s the best assistant Dr. Battista has ever had, ever could have, and the whole scientific community knows about Pyotr Cherbakov, and he’s the only one Dr. Battista can possibly work with, and without Pyotr he might as well abandon his research, because it’s doomed . . . unless . . .
“Unless, perhaps, we could get him an . . . adjustment of status.
“Oh, good, get him an adjustment of status.”
She brushed past him and went out to the hall. “Bunny!” she shouted. “Supper’s on!”
“We could adjust his status to ‘married to an American.'”
“Pyotr’s married to an American?”
“Well, not quite yet,” her father said. He trailed her back to the dining room. “But he’s fairly nice-looking, don’t you agree? All those girls working in the building: they seem to find different reasons to talk to him.”
“So he could marry a girl in the building?” Kate asked. She sat down at her place and shook out her napkin.
“I don’t think so,” her father said. “He doesn’t . . . the conversations never seem to develop any further, unfortunately.”
Her father sat down at the head of the table. He cleared his throat. “You, maybe?”
And so it begins. Such fun.
Or maybe not.
Shrews aren’t usually born shrewish. Shakespeare shows that Baptista favors Bianca; it’s no wonder Katherina is out of sorts.
Kate Battista, too, is the daughter of a widowed father who seems to take her for granted while focusing his attention on his younger child. When Pyotr observes Kate is pretty, Dr. Battista says, “You should see her sister.” That must hurt.
And then he makes a heartless request, urges her to marry a man she doesn’t know so he can keep his research assistant.
“I guess I just couldn’t believe my own father would conceive of such a thing. . . . You would never ask Bunny to do this . . . Your precious treasure Bunny-poo.”
The Taming of the Shrew poses a problem for modern audiences: It is misogynistic? Maybe. Maybe not. Some scholars say Katherina isn’t tamed at all, but that she and Petruchio are putting on an elaborate show for the banquet guests and are enjoying every minute of it.
Vinegar Girl poses no such problem. Kate is no Katherina, rife for taming. But after ten years of routine, she suddenly has a lot more to think about than doing taxes and cooking meat mash and keeping Bunny in line. The idea of marrying Pyotr is unthinkable. But it’s so important to her father.
Will she please her father or herself? Can she do both? Will her sense of honor and self-respect survive the ordeal?
Does she have the tact, diplomacy, and restraint to carry her through? Or will her own mysterious etiquette be enough?
And, by the way, where does Pyotr fit into this puzzle?
Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is a delightful romp, part Shakespeare, part Jane Austen, all Anne Tyler. It would make a fine summer read. Or fall. Or winter.