Sunday, January 07, 2018

Vinegar Girl (2016)

This is the first I've heard of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, published by Penguin Random House under the Hogarth Press imprint, which was originally founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The idea for the series is to let contemporary novelists give their fictional takes on Shakespeare plays. Eight books total, launched in October 2015, and they are still rolling out. Others feature Margaret Atwood riffing on The Tempest and Jeanette Winterson on The Winter's Tale. Anne Tyler here takes on The Taming of the Shrew. There's actually a compatibility between the two I hadn't anticipated. Not that I know the Shakespeare that well, but it's not hard to see his narrative bones constituting a handy frame on which Tyler can drape her modern-day chatterboxes. I think Petruchio's personality may have shifted some in the Russian immigrant Pyotr, but Kate is a pretty straight translation: an independent-minded woman caught in various social snares, and so perpetually aggrieved—"the shrew." It feels like Tyler is having a lot of fun with this and enjoying herself more than she has in a while, and that's infectious. Already it's one of her funniest—Shakespeare gets credit too, as they are usually his situations, notwithstanding that it takes place in Baltimore and involves elderly people incapable of mastering today's technology. The love affair—or "like affair" might be the better term for once—between Pyotr and Kate is the heartbeat of the whole thing, advancing from awkward arranged marriage to a satisfying happy ending that proceeds directly from the characters of the principals, who are equally likable, together or apart. The 29-year-old Kate is a perfect image of women in the 21st century and the choices they face. Some of the changes in her relationship with Pyotr feel like they come too fast. But they are never inexplicable, often quite to be expected, and it doesn't hurt to know the action is backstopped by the immortal bard himself. Whatever the causes, Tyler feels more liberated to work and indulge her own strengths, the usual vexing and comical issues of intimate family interdependencies, with plenty of sweet sweet pathos on the side. The rumors surrounding her last novel, that it was her last and now she would retire, appear to be overstated. I don't want to be greedy or anything, but here's hoping there's a little more where this came from.

In case it's not at the library.

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