Anne Tyler is one of those authors whose books I buy without reading a review, without reading the blurbs or the insert, and without even looking at the cover. I have complete faith that an Anne Tyler book will be good, but I have to say I hesitated when I came across her latest book Vinegar Girl. This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I am not a big Shakespeare fan. “The Hogarth Shakespeare project sees Shakespeare’s works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today.” The series launched in October 2015 and upcoming authors include Tracey Chevalier and Gillian Flynn among others. What I quickly discovered and will share with the of you who share my feelings (so you don’t hesitate before buying and reading Vinegar Girl) is that you don’t need to be familiar with Shakespeare to enjoy this book.
I’m not going to post a full review because the talented Jane Smiley has already done that in last week’s New York Times book review, but I’ll include a few of my favorite scenes. Tyler’s heroine (or shrew) is Kate Battista who is one of those characters I wish I could meet in person. Even though I am much older than her (Kate is 29), I feel like we would be good friends. Kate is an assistant at a pre-school and her interactions with the children are some of the most enjoyable scenes in the book. Here’s an example:
“If a child refused to lie down at Quiet Rest Time, Kate just said “Fine, be that way,” and stomped off in a huff. Mrs. Chauncey would send her a reproachful look before telling the child, “Somebody isn’t doing what Miss Kate told him to.” At such moments, Kate felt like an imposter. Who was she to order a child to take a nap? She completely lacked authority, and all the children knew it; they seemed to view her as just an extra-tall, more obstreperous four-year-old.” (had to look up obstreperous and it means noisy and difficult to control.)
Kate lives with her scientist father and her much younger sister “Bunny,” and has taken on the role of the care-giver. (Kate’s mother died soon after Bunny’s birth after long bouts of depression.) Even with that seemingly dismal setting, there is great humor in Tyler’s description of the family’s eccentricities, and in the dialogue between the family members, especially Kate and her father. When her father suggests that Kate could marry his assistant to help keep him in the country, she refuses and calls it human trafficking. Her father assures her the arrangement won’t change anything. “All I had in mind was, we would go on more or less as before except that Pyoder would move in with us.”
Kate reluctantly agrees to her father’s plan to marry her off to his Russian microbiologist assistant and Tyler reveals their awkward and humorous “courtship” through text messages:
Hi Kate I text you!
U r home now?
Spell things out, for heaven’s sake. You’re not some teenager.
You are home now?
I won’t tell you what happens because I don’t want to spoil the fun of following Kate’s journey, but there is a scene toward the end of the book where Kate delivers a brief speech to her family and I felt like I was hearing from Tyler herself; like I was getting a glimpse into the way she sees relationships between men and women. “Women have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers; they’ve been perfecting their radar — their intuition or their empathy or their interpersonal whatchamacallit. They know how things work underneath, while men have been stuck with the sports competitions and the wars and the fame and success. It’s like men and women are in two different countries!”
This is why I will continue to buy Ann Tyler books without hesitation.