Although Anne Tyler’s new novel is a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew commissioned for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Vinegar Girl (Hogarth, digital galley) reads more like a Tyleresque version of the movie Green Card. That’s fine with me, because I’ve always found Shrew problematic for its sexism, even if the two lovers appear to be in cahoots by the end. But I remember Green Card as a charming rom-com, and Vinegar Girl has the easy charm of many of Tyler’s books, with their endearingly oddball characters living seemingly ordinary lives. And, of course, the setting is now Baltimore, “Charm City.”
Kate Battista is a 29-year-old teaching assistant at a neighborhood pre-school, still living at home looking after her widower scientist father Louis and her pretty 15-year-old sister Bunny. She’s not so much shrewish as forthright and tactless — an altercation with a college professor led to her dropping out without a degree in botany — and while her young students adore her, their parents aren’t as comfortable. Still, she’s remarkably patient with her father’s eccentricities –“meat mash” for dinner all week — and over-indulgence of Bunny, at least until he proposes she marry his research assistant, Pyotr, so he can stay in the country. She’s mad and sad as she stomps up the stairs: “He must think she was of no value; she was nothing but a bargaining chip in his single-minded quest for a scientific miracle.”
This then is the farcical set-up for courtship, but the ensuing antics are mild and rather sweet. Pyotr, although literal-minded, is nowhere near as clueless as his employer. He admires Kate’s individuality, her long black curls, how she “resemble flamingo dancer.” Sure, he speaks bluntly without articles and adjectives, but Kate realizes he has layers of thought and feeling. She defends him to busybody relatives, and then is surprised when Aunt Thelma pronounces him “a cutie.”
A subplot involving Bunny’s sudden attraction to a pot-smoking neighbor and thus to veganism and animal-rights seems somewhat forced, but it does provide Tyler the chance for some satirical observations and to kick the action up a gear. The scenes of Kate at nursery school are spot on. The kids play and bicker — “Did so.” “Did not” — like the four-year-olds they are, occasionally spouting perfect gems, as when one girl talks about frolicking baby goats: “Yes, a few of them were just barely beginning to fly.” The children may not see Kate as an authority figure, but they recognize her as a kindred spirit. The little boys want to marry her one day. They accept her for who she is, as does Pyotr, who knows she is more than a green card.
Still, the question remains. Will Kate and Pyotr marry for convenience, go their separate ways, or will they make a true match of it? Tyler takes her cue from another Shakespeare play: All’s well that ends well. Summer reading, anyone?