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This novel was a pleasure to read!

Vinegar Girl: A Novel (Hogarth Shakespeare) - Anne Tyler

This novel is billed as a modern day rewrite of "The Taming of the "Shrew". It is such a pleasant read, without the usual sex and violence that is so prevalent today in books that seem to go on forever for no apparent reason. I found the characters delightfully quirky and enjoyed reading about the developing relationship between Kate Battista and Pyotr Shcherbakov, two characters whose actions were obvious and without guile. The book presents a picture of male chauvinism in a self-deprecating way which is very appealing. The characters seem naïve and unschooled in the social graces and rules of political correctness that permeate so much of life today. Subtly, it points a finger at a society that worships appearance above intelligence, that succumbs to irrational demands above common sense and that often overreacts.

Dr. Battista, father of Kate, 29, and Bunny, 15, is obsessed with order and organization. He is a creature of habit, and Kate, still unmarried, adheres to his rules and follows them strictly at home. She prepares the same meal for every night of the week according to a recipe provided by her father. It supplies them with all of the necessary nutrients. It is a conglomeration of vegetables and beef that is mashed into a kind of paste. The taste and presentation of it is sometimes varied, but that is immaterial. Dr. Battista is a scientist who works with “innocent” mice researching auto-immune diseases. He seeks to ease the suffering of modern man.
Kate works as a teaching assistant in the Little People’s School. She is fairly unfriendly there, and has, as a result, few friends. She doesn’t seem to have a filter and says whatever comes to her mind, often insulting people without realizing it or realizing it too late, since she speaks honestly and openly, to adults and children, without much advance thought about discretion. She can be crude and rude as well as innocently good natured in her judgment and comments. However, what is on her mind is on her tongue. She prefers her own space and company to that of others. She raised her sister Bunny, a free spirited beauty of a child, now 15, since the death of their mother when she was a year old. Bunny is not a stellar student, rather she is a developing and precocious young girl who has chosen as her Spanish tutor, Edward, a young neighbor she is attracted to who is both a vegan and a bit odd.

Pyotr is the higly acclaimed assistant to Dr. Battista. He is from Russia and is in the United States on a visa that is about to expire. He was found on a porch in a box for canned peaches. There was a note attached that simply said he was two days old. He has no known family. Although he is focused, has a steady job and a plan for his future, he feels out of place with no home and he longs to belong and fit into the world.

When Dr. Battista suddenly begins acting oddly, taking a greater interest in Kate, she begins to wonder why. Then she realizes that he is playing matchmaker. He is trying to get her romantically involved with his assistant so that he can remain in the United States. His visa is about to end, and he will be forced to return to Russia. This will detrimentally affect Dr. Battista’s years of work and status. He wants her to marry Pyotr to give him legal status.

Kate rebuffs her father’s efforts and rebuffs Pyotr, as she does most people, but Pyotr seems smitten as well as in need of legal status. He is persistent, even though she is almost always cold and rude. While Kate’s behavior often turns people off, Pyotr’s behavior often endears them to him. He is kind. Although he is often disheveled, inartful in his dress as she is, he is not spurned, but is admired for his unusual look and lack of social graces. He is considered charming, she is considered inept. He is nice looking and naturally helpful, although he too, can be gruff. As Kate gets to know Pyotr, she realizes that she has a home and a job, but no plans for her future. She becomes aware of the fact that she does not belong anyplace in the world. She has no direction for her life.

Dr. Battista is very dependent on Kate. He is a workaholic, dedicated to his research. Dr. Battista is a kind of a gentle, but arrogant man; he is a know it all, putting his own needs above his daughter's and everyone else’s. She has been the nursemaid, housekeeper, cook, surrogate parent, and even tax accountant for him. He doesn’t seem to realize the audacity of his latest request. The “favor” he is asking of her is life-altering and illegal. However, as Kate gets to know Pyotr and realizes the depth of her father’s despair, she begins to waiver in her reluctance to agree. At the same time she begins to have thoughts about breaking away and finding her own freedom and independence. Somehow, her friendship with Pyotr has made her understand that she needs to be on her own, needs to get out from under her father, out from his house and into one of her own. Perhaps as she opens a door for Pyotr, he can open one for her. Perhaps Kate, who loves to garden, can grow like a flower and blossom into a fulfilled human being. In the right environment, and with the right encouragement, perhaps she can stop being resentful and begin to expand and enjoy her life. Will she?

The novel is written with a light touch, with tongue in cheek humor as the characters are developed. Their antics are a bit hokey, but they always made me smile. Tyler has developed the characters so clearly that I can picture them in the flesh, hear them in my mind’s eye and root for them to find happiness and success. I actually liked them, all except for Edward, the so-called Spanish tutor! He was one of those who gave in to an idea without thinking, to a whim rather than to careful thought. Yes the environment is important, yes, cruelty to animals should be outlawed, but the value of human life over the life of a mouse was never considered by him, and it is most definitely a part of the equation.

Subtly, Tyler has analyzed and exposed the frailties and failures of today’s society.


***This book was provided to me by “Library Thing”  as an Early Reviewer copy.