Looking for a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew? May I suggest that your eschew this shrew and settle down on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn for another screening of 10 Things I Hate About You instead? 10 Things treats its characters with much more respect- I know- a teen movie from 1999 outranks Pulitzer winner Anne Tyler. I’m sure she’ll get over it.
Vinegar Girl is often fun; our Kate spends her days working with preschoolers who are wise beyond their years, and her interactions with the four-year-olds that she minds are irreverent and surprising. Her father is regimented and rule-oriented as always, but this time he is a research scientist with a system-oriented brain. The science background keeps him from being a tyrant; he is more misunderstood than anything else. Our Petrucio is Pyotr, a (possibly) Russian research assistant brought to America on a genius visa that is rapidly expiring. I say “possibly” as it is never actually stated where Pyotr is from; instead there is a ton of “in my country” and “where he’s from” sprinkled throughout the text.
Pyotr’s “in my country”s reach a Borat-level of over-the top outsider-ness, obviously drawn to poke fun at him. There is even a moment where Kate states that “foreigners” (that word is used A LOT) talk “that way” on purpose in order to be different and draw attention to themselves. Now I am not naive enough to believe that every character in every book should meet my standards as human beings- I understand that characters have arcs and that not all people can be “good”, but Kate is colored so poorly in her attitudes towards others that it’s distracting and in poor taste. I am lead to believe that it’s not just Kate who has this problem. She is colored by Anne Tyler.
At one point we meet a caretaker for an older woman in the story. It is pointed out several times that she is Asian (no country here either), and there are general assumptions stated as facts. Like how “like many other older Asian women she wore what could have been men’s clothes: an untucked khaki workshirt and boxy brown trousers and blindingly white sneakers”.
What the fuck? What does that wild assumption have to do with anything, and why is it necessary to point out her “otherness” as opposed to allowing her to carry cultural weight and significance? The above observation is not made by a character but by Tyler herself. Disappointing. Tyler makes many assumptions throughout the short tome, and while the most offensive are certainly those that she makes surrounding Mrs. Liu and Pyotr, she is terribly out of touch with the “young” people of her story as well. It is hard to place exactly when this story is happening, as she cannot decide if 15-year-old Bunny is a 50’s sockhopper or a late 90’s “Valley Girl”. There are smartphones present, if that helps (it does not).
Tact, restraint, diplomacy. What was the difference between tact and diplomacy? Maybe “tact” referred to saying things politely while “diplomacy” meant not saying anything at all. Except, wouldn’t “restraint” cover that? Wouldn’t “restraint” cover all three?
I hope that Tyler can follow her own words next time she is attempting to write about people outside of her personal purview. You know, before she has another white guy making dream catchers and giving them to other white people in her next book.