Saturday, 21 January 2017

Review: Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

2 stars

Vinegar Girl was a cautionary tale about straying into literary fiction. As a retelling of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, it had a high chance of an HEA and relied on the popular romance trope of a marriage of convenience, so I thought it wouldn't be too taxing. But, not only was it taxing, the similarities to romance made me hyper-aware of just how lacking it was.

As well as being a assistant in a preschool, Kate Battista keeps house for her eccentric professor father and air-headed teenaged sister. When Professor Battista's Russian research assistant, Pyotr, cannot get a visa extension, the two men hatch a plan: Pyotr will marry Kate so that he can get a green card. Kate resists initially, but ultimately agrees to the idea. Now, I should have some suspenseful "but is it really a marriage of convenience?" line, but I can't bring myself to write it, because I am just so confused and dismayed at everything that happened after that. The blurb describes Professor Battista and Pyotr's marriage of convenience plan as "touchingly ludicrous", but it's not, it's horrible and agency-robbing - despite Kate's reluctant consent - and everything keeps going downhill from there. 

Inside Romancelandia, we spend a lot of time shouting into the void about the feminism of the genre. I can - and frequently do - make this argument to non-romance people, and yet it wasn't until I read Vinegar Girl that I fully realised how much I had come to consider literature and heroines that are tacitly but undeniably feminist as the norm. 

Vinegar Girl's source material, The Taming of the Shrew, is considered by some to be a grossly misogynistic play, but has also been reinterpreted as some kind of stealthy proto-feminism. Whichever way you see it and whatever you think Shakespeare's opinions were, The Taming of the Shrew reflects its society. Again, some people say that it's social commentary on the treatment of women in Shakespeare's society; others say that the comedic aspect trivialises Kate's abuse and her presentation as the shrewish wife is a source of cheap laughs, rather than a treatise on domestic abuse (Grzadkowska 2014). 

I don't think Vinegar Girl reflects our society in the same way. Maybe it reflects the 1950s; despite her supposed social awkwardness, Kate does a lot of cooking and gardening and looking after her men. Or, maybe it does make a point about our society. It is possible I found one, but it's ambiguous and mired in things that undermine it. Perhaps that means - in literary fiction terms - it's subtle and subversive and this romance reader just isn't clever enough to work it all out. I've been thinking and writing the whole thing in circles for weeks now, and it's made me very tired. 

Basically, my problem is that Kate does massive amounts of unrecognised emotional labour, first for her father, and then for her father and Pyotr, both of whom are emotionally stunted and completely thoughtless about the way their actions impact others. This is explored somewhat through the way that the Professor talks about his deceased wife, and Kate's mother, who clearly became depressed because of her husband's high expectations and emotional neglect. But then it seems as though a similar dynamic is created between Kate and Pyotr. In the end, Kate makes a big speech - the equivalent of Katherina's final speech in The Taming of the Shrew, where she encourages women to be submissive to their husbands - in which she says:
“It’s hard being a man. Have you ever thought about that? Anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it. They think they should seem in charge, in control; they don’t dare show their true feelings. No matter if they’re hurting or desperate or stricken with grief, if they’re heartsick or they’re homesick or some huge dark guilt is hanging over them or they’re about to fail big-time at something—‘Oh, I’m okay,’ they say. ‘Everything’s just fine.’ They’re a whole lot less free than women are, when you think about it.” 
It's not that Kate - and Tyler - don't have a point. Toxic masculinity, which makes men suppress their feelings, is a problem. But this is a result of sexism: the flip-side is that women are meant to be emotionally literate and supportive. And she does nothing to challenge or dismantle that assumption. In fact, she buys into it massively. From the beginning to the end of the book, it is Kate who does all the emotional labour in her relationships. 

The speech is meant to be about Pyotr - Kate's sister has accused her of "backing down" to him - but Pyotr falls seems to deal with strong emotion more by man-babying than bottling, leaving Kate to do the damage control.

To be honest, I had problems with the way Tyler constructed Pyotr in general. His halting speech and bumbling nature strip him of his full humanity. Somehow it's even worse that Tyler is aware of what she's doing; perhaps halfway through the book, Kate has a realisation that Pyotr has thoughts and feelings just as complex as hers, even if he can't communicate them successfully in English. At first, I wrote off his inconsistent English abilities as a quirk; he works in academia, so he must have a solid grasp of English, even if he does not always employ it. However, later in the book, a secondary character called Mrs Liu is introduced, who is presented as having similar language problems as Pyotr: she has a grasp of complicated phrases and obscure words, but forgets or misuses basic, everyday language in ways that are not culturally specific (for example, I don't object to Pyotr dropping articles, as many native Russian speakers with excellent English do this). Anyway, once Mrs Liu made her appearance, it was hard to see the speech thing as anything other than racist or xenophobic. 

Quite apart from the whole ambiguous point about gender roles, Vinegar Girl was slow-moving and had pacing problems towards the end. There was no chemistry between Kate and Pyotr, and their decision to have a 'real' marriage was completely incomprehensible, particularly from Kate's perspective. I did enjoy the writing, except for the racist speech thing, and the odd turn of phrase that was overly florid. 

Really, the most I can say about this book is that it was thought-provoking. But I didn't really want my thoughts provoked into going around in circles with no clear answer, and I can get a clearer, less ambiguous point about gender roles by reading a romance, the newspaper or even just looking out the window. And I don't need to read fiction which takes the pain, suffering and forbearance of women as one of its foundations. That sucks, and maybe the next time some literary fiction snob sneers at my romance, I'll be able to tell them that.

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