Book review: Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

US author Anne Tyler. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
US author Anne Tyler. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Anne Tyler takes The Taming of the Shrew and repopulates it with a delightful cast for a warm slice of American family life

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler | Hogarth, 233pp, £14.99

The Hogarth Shakespeares, novelistic adaptations of the plays, have understandably been a very mixed bunch, some authors choosing to stick pretty closely to the original while offering it up in modern dress, others straying so far that one wouldn’t have guessed the source of the novel. Nothing wrong with that. Shakespeare belongs to all of us, and we can do with his work what we will.

The Taming of the Shrew is probably not among many people’s favourite plays. Cole Porter transformed it into a musical, Kiss Me, Kate, more enjoyable I would say than the original. Now it has been entrusted to Anne Tyler, an admirable choice, and the result is delightful, ingenious and convincing, Renaissance Italy transported to America today.

At 29 Kate Battista is on what used to be called the shelf. She keeps house for her widowed father, a university scientist engaged for years in research into autoimmune diseases. She must also care for her sister Bunny, 15 years-old and a very pretty airhead, and she works part-time at a nursery school where she gets on fine with the kids, but is often in trouble and in danger of losing her job because in conversation with parents she tactlessly says what she thinks. She is amusing and strong-minded but fears that her life is without direction and going nowhere.

Her father has a valued assistant, Pyotr, the best, he says, that he’s ever had. Kate hardly knows him, and finds what she does know awkward and tiresome. He has the habit of saying “in my country we have a proverb”, and the proverbs are, like most proverbs, either obvious or silly. Her father, however, keeps arranging for her to meet Pyotr. The reason is eventually disclosed. Pyotr’s immigration visa is about to expire. He will be deported unless his status changes. Clearly, Dr Battista declares, the solution is for his assistant to marry his daughter Kate.

Naturally she is indignant. “You’re asking me to marry someone I don’t even know so you can hang on to your research assistant”. She isn’t mollified when her father points out that he is a highly qualified research assistant, a very good chap, and she does anyway know him slightly. Kate can hardly be blamed for stomping off to her room. It’s not the sort of request to be put to a young woman of today. Matters are only moved a little further forward when her father assures her it needn’t be a real marriage, just real enough to satisfy the immigration authorities.

Well, of course, every reader knows that they must marry in the end, for we can trust Anne Tyler to be true to Shakespeare. The question is how it is to be brought about, by what means will Kate be persuaded and she and Pyotr brought together in some sort of harmony. In one sense this question is a staple of this kind of narrative. Elizabeth Bennett dislikes Mr Darcy. The heroines of Georgette Heyer’s novels, often strong-minded young women, may loathe the man the author has destined them for. Anne Tyler treats the course of her heroine’s journey towards acceptance with great delicacy, wit and humour.

Yet, while respectful of Shakespeare, she isn’t slavishly loyal. She says she has always felt that there must be another side to The Taming of the Shrew, and provides it. Which of the young people is indeed more in need of taming and domestication?

You don’t need to have read or seen the Shakespeare play to enjoy this delightful novel. Anne Tyler has taken the ingredients, shaken the bag, and made something 21st century and very American of it. There are a number of excellently drawn minor characters – Tyler has always been able to bring people to life in a couple of sentences – and nicely invented episodes. The comedy is gentler and less crude than in the original from which she is working, and all the better for this. It’s a sunny book, a novel in which the characters are agreeable and the mood benign. One has the impression that the author enjoyed writing it. Anyone who values good writing and the intelligent observation and depiction of how people feel, think and speak, will enjoy it too.