In the year in which we mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler joins a distinguished group of writers that includes Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson in reinterpreting the bard’s works for Hogarth Press. Vinegar Girl transports The Taming of the Shrew from Padua to Tyler’s beloved Baltimore, and the product is a witty novel that reveals both the durability of Shakespeare’s themes and Tyler’s talent for creating pleasantly eccentric characters and engaging portraits of contemporary domestic life.
As someone who hates small children, Kate Battista couldn’t be more ill-suited for her work as a preschool teacher’s assistant. Her unfailing candor has put her job in jeopardy, and at 29 she is still living with her father, a fumbling, self-absorbed microbiology researcher at Johns Hopkins University, and a sullen sister half her age. Given Kate’s severely circumscribed prospects, it’s hardly surprising when her father seizes on the idea of having her wed his Russian research assistant, Pyotr Shcherbakov, whose visa is about to expire, saving him from deportation.
As preposterous as that union may seem, Tyler gives Kate a credible interior life, permitting her to wrestle with the absurdity of participating in what she thinks of as “human trafficking,” weighed against her fear that she’ll live out her days as the “old-maid daughter still keeping house for her father.” When her sister pleads with her to call off the wedding, Kate’s plaintive cry that “This is my chance to turn my life around, Bunny,” resonates with real emotional force.
With the characteristic light touch of her 20 previous novels, Tyler plausibly depicts the halting evolution of Kate and Pyotr’s relationship as her family and friends look on with attitudes that range from bemusement to alarm. As befits such a genial comedy, the roadblocks that separate the couple from the altar are predictably mild, but Tyler deploys them to illuminate character, not garner unearned laughs. Vinegar Girl is a bittersweet novel that both honors and extends its source material.