Vinegar Girl: review

Vinegar Girl (NetGalley)
Anne Tyler
Hogarth/Crown Publishing

vinegar girl I’m not one for modern novels that piggy back on a great work of literature. Chances are I’ve already read the classic, so the broad strokes of the contemporary retelling seem forced. And I tend to nitpick, as well: “Well, that didn’t happen in The Great Classic” or “Famous Classic Character would never say such a thing!” So the much acclaimed A Thousand Acres (King Lear) by Jane Smiley? I skimmed it. (I know, I know it won the Pulitzer …) I really don’t see Pride and Prejudice in Bridget Jones’s Diary, either. And while I did enjoy The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, once Edgar unravels his uncle Claude (hah!) and runs away, it was so over-the-top Hamlet, that the novel was spoiled for me.

So I wasn’t prepared to like Anne Tyler’s latest novel The Vinegar Girl, which is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. But here’s the deal. I’ve never read The Taming of the Shrew, so I had nothing to compare it to and Tyler’s story held up well enough on its own.

Kate Batista is stuck in a dead end job and still living at home. She’s 30, works in a preschool, and doesn’t even like kids. Her widowed dad is a stereotypical absent-minded scientist and her sixteen-year-old sister is a stereotypical teenager. Kate keeps house for them both and is either the glue that holds the family together or the door mat. Probably both. Until her dad decides he can kill two birds with one stone: marry off Kate and keep his Russian research assistant in the U.S. 

Kate resists and then she doesn’t. Because this just might be her ticket out of the house. Pyotr Cherbokov is at times charming, but most often rude and ill-mannered, at least by American standards. Will she go through with the marriage or not?

Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel doesn’t have the keen insight or the charming absurdity that her early novels had. Nor did her last, A Spool of Blue Thread which I read last year and liked well enough (link). But it’s a sweet story, well-told–and since it’s based on one of Shakespeare’s comedies, you know it ends well for our heroine.

And what’s not to like about happily ever after?

And a booklover’s read

Bookman’s Tale (NetGalley)
Charles Lovett

A dreary day–rain drenched Wales–a bookshop–a rare book collector. The opening paragraphs of Charles Lovett’s recently published The Bookman’s Tale is sure to hook any bibliophile. And so begins the story of Peter Byerly: book binder, bookseller, recently widowed, and grieving. Peter walks into that bookshop, opens a book, and absent-mindedly picks up a paper that flutters to the floor. What he isn’t expecting to see is a small watercolor of what looks like his dead wife. Shaken, Peter begins a search to find out the woman’s identity and just how she came to be in the book in the first place. When I first read the publisher’s blurb, I hoped thought this just might be another time travel novel–I kept waiting!–but about halfway through Tale I realized I was immersed in a mystery. (And the woman’s identity was revealed at the end!)

Lovett shifts between Peter’s present story, his life before the death of his wife Amanda, and even still further back to the eighteenth and nineteenth century. It is when Peter interns as a college student in the university’s special collections that he learns the ins and outs of  rare books–and the forgeries that sometimes become almost as valuable as the special collections themselves. Peter’s search for the truth about that watercolor lead him into the world of Shakespeare deniers, and it soon becomes clear that he just might hold the key to proving whether or not Shakespeare was indeed the writer of the works ascribed to him–could the copy of Pandosto (an early version of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale) that Peter holds be the key?

In terms of simple storytelling, I found Peter’s present and recent past much more compelling than following the subterfuge of the earlier centuries. The names, dates, and texts that traded hands blurred at times, and, my biggest complaint as a reader, I almost think the author tried to cover too much territory–there was a  family feud, mistress, bastard child, and forgery that changed hands four (?) times. Peter and Amanda’s story was powerful enough.  I felt as Amanda did during their courtship when she  listened to Peter’s rare book discoveries and “quietly indulged his passion, despite the fact that she could not keep straight the maze of collectors and dealers with whom [Peter] had interacted.” Only I was indulging the author’s passions.

But I’m not a great reader of mysteries, so this might just be my own shortcoming as a reader! Overall, I enjoyed Bookman’s Tale … and the ending that was just shy of happily ever after.

Long live the Queen

Elizabeth I
Margaret George

The imperial votaress passed on, in maiden meditation, fancy-free. ~ William Shakespreare

I felt a close kinship with many of those who surrounded Elizabeth during her long reign. Like those whose lives were held in check by her capricious iron will, who waited long years for overdue titles and positions at court, who tried again and again to breach her borders, I, too, asked myself, “Will this woman never die?!” And while I don’t regret reading Margaret George’s tome Elizabeth I, I was overjoyed to set it aside, happy that Elizabeth had crossed over, and I could get on with my life. (Now lest I sound too harsh in my reaction to Elizabeth I, the author covered only the last thirty years of her life, from her early 50’s to her death in 1603.)

The novel is plodding; there’s no other word for it. Chapters crawled by at the pace of an Elizabethan Progress–George packed dozens of wagons filled with Elizabeth’s days, traveled slowly over English countryside, only to unpack it all and begin over again. And I have to say I learned much about life in the Queen’s private chambers and how life at court unfolded. (I also think contemporary politicians–scandals and all–can’t hold a candle to the deals, bribery, and subterfuge of Elizabeth’s court.) But George couldn’t roll a carriage down the street without pointing out, house-by-house who lived where and what their relationship with the Queen had been, and the detail, at times, was burdensome.

Interwoven with Elizabeth’s story were chapters narrated by Lettice Knollys nee Devereaux nee Dudley, Elizabeth‘s cousin, long banished from court, and also the wife of Elizabeth’s (perhaps) true love, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Lettice was as controlling and conniving as Elizabeth–but without the power and status–and I assume that was the real reason behind the women’s long feud. Interesting was George’s speculation that William Shakespeare was Lady Devereaux’s lover for a time. I loved the few behind-the-scenes glimpses we get of Shakespeare, his “new” plays as they were performed, and London’s reaction. 

A definite must-read for Anglophiles and a great companion to the recent films about Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth and Elizabeth: the Golden Age. Just give yourself plenty of time. 

Next up: In the time it took me to finish Elizabeth and write this post (3 days), I’m already plowing through the Pulitzer Prize winner by Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing. (And reading printed hard copies again has brought my reading back into focus.) Next, next up is Blind Sight by Meg Howrey. I think I heard a review of it on NPR.