Monday, 18 September 2017

Guest post by Mary Hoffman: VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

"A new Anne Tyler is always a big event for me ..."

Mary’s first book, a YA novel, was published in 1975. Since then she has written 120 books, mainly for children and teenagers but lately also a couple of adult novels under pseudonyms. After graduating in English Literature from Cambridge and spending a couple of years studying Linguistics at UCL, Mary wrote courses for the Open University for five years but then went freelance. She recently started The Greystones Press, a small independent publishing house, with her husband. Mary’s books have been translated into 30 language and won some prizes. She runs the popular History Girls blog, which can be read every day. Mary lives in a converted barn in West Oxfordshire with her husband and three demanding Burmese cats. Her three daughters are all grown up: one is a writer, one a theatre producer and the youngest, a designer, is sailing round the world. Mary has four grandchildren and her latest picture book, Pirate Baby, is dedicated to the two on the boat.

A new Anne Tyler novel is always a big event for me. I wait till it is available in paperback and when I saw this one in Oxford Waterstones, as I was buying my holiday stash, I snatched it up with joy. It was only when I opened it in Cornwall that I realised I hadn’t meant to buy this one.

For it is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project that invites top fiction writers to re-tell – or re-imagine rather – one of the plays as a novel. I really didn’t like the concept and, of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Taming of the Shrew is one of my least favourite, only just above Titus Andronicus.

But, as the quotation from Good Housekeeping says on the back, “a new Anne Tyler book is always a treat,” so I set aside my reservations.

There is a typical Anne Tyler female protagonist. She is usually well into middle age or older, looking back on a life of devotion to a more or less grateful family when something jolts her into a re-evaluation of her life. It might be something as dramatic as a kidnap or as mundane as a walk along the beach but it leads to a major shift in outlook, a desire to do some things differently.

And just as there is often a woman like this, somewhat faded and disappointed in life, there can instead be a male main character, who is finding life something he has to wrestle with. It can be because of bereavement like Aaron, the hero of The Beginner’s Goodbye, whose wife has been killed in freak accident or like Macon in The Accidental Tourist, whose young son has been murdered, though you don’t find that out till the end.

Or he may just be someone who hasn’t quite got the hang of how things work for most people. Tyler males often seem eccentric and obsessive, hovering on the edge of the spectrum.

So I wasn’t sure how frustrated young Katharina and Petruchio, with his exuberant and outlandish behaviour were going to fit into the Tyler mould. I needn’t have worried; she is more than ready for the challenge.

It’s true that her Kate Battista has sleepwalked into finding herself the person who runs the house for her scientist father and ditsy, boy-mad fifteen-year-old sister Bunny. And into a job as a teaching assistant for four-year-olds in a nursery school. But she is only twenty-nine and not yet the faded and frazzled norm for a Tyler heroine.

Her “Petruchio” is Pyotr, her father’s research assistant in his lab, whose three year visa is about to run out. Dr. Battista, whose speciaiism is autoimmunology, feels he is on the verge of a breakthrough that only Pyotr can help him realise. So he hits on the bright idea that his daughter Kate might marry him to get him his green card and enable their research to continue.

This absurd notion is certainly worthy of Shakespeare’s play, though Dr Battista is a much more significant figure than Kate’s father in the Shrew. In fact, he is that male character whose eccentricities about domestic life mark him out as a Tyler creation. He might not arrange his groceries alphabetically like the Learys in The Accidental Tourist but he has devised a ghastly-sounding solution to nurturing his family after his wife’s death: “Meat mash, they called it, but it was mainly dried beans and green vegetables and potatoes, which [Kate} mixed with a small amount of stewed beef every Saturday afternoon and puréed into a sort of grayish paste to be served throughout the week.”

Is it any wonder Kate is “a picky eater” and Bunny tries ineffectually to become a vegetarian? (Actually, this was something I didn’t like about the book: that Bunny’s vegetarianism is sneered at as a passing adolescent phase. I am so tired of novelists taking this line or the other one that we veggies secretly yearn for and scoff bacon butties when we can).

Anyway, amazingly considering Pyotr’s disregard for social niceties and the pressure on Kate to provide him with a new immigration status, she does agree to a marriage blanc. Tyler doesn’t shirk the groom’s inappropriate wedding gear but it and his lateness are explained by a crisis at the lab: the experimental mice have been stolen by animal activists.

She even has a heroic stab at Katharina’s “thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper” speech so beloved of would be female actors when auditioning for drama school. But this is not entirely successful – how could it be?

“It’s hard being a man,” says Kate to her sister and the assembled company at the wedding reception her aunt has been allowed to give the happy couple, sounding like a mixture of Robert Webb and Matt Haig.

But a touching epilogue told through the eyes of their six-year-old son shows them to have become just that – a happy couple. Only Kate has gone back to college and she and Pyotr have both won scientific prizes. The further away it got from Shakespeare, the more I liked it.

Vinegar Girl is published by Vintage.

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