Vinegar Girl is the latest in a series commissioned by Hogarth Press to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare‘s death. We are firmly in Anne Tyler territory here, the action takes place in Baltimore. Kate Battista is a pre-school teacher’s assistant, acerbic and blunt to the point of rudeness; she is loved by her pupils, held at arms length by her fellow teachers and disliked by the parents, largely because she tells them like it is, rather than what they want to hear about darling Jameesha or Emma.
Kate’s father is a nerdy, needy research professor looking into autoimmune systems and his assistant Pyotr has a Green Card issue, his visa will run out in three months.
So, Doctor Battista has an idea…do you see where we are going here? Does this clue help – Kate has a younger sister, prettier, flirtier and boy-mad called Bunny (which surely cannot be her real name, could it be Bianca?)
Yes, the penny drops. This is The Taming of the Shrew reformatted. It has all the lightness of touch, the humour and the rapier sharp wit of Kate, without some of the cruelty. Yes, Pyotr arrives late and badly dressed for the wedding, but there is a reason and we are party to it; there is a banquet and there is a speech and finally there is a kiss. This is the third in the series.
Howard Jacobson got The Merchant of Venice. He took rather a different path, we are definitely in the twenty-first century, but in Shylock is my Name, Shylock is a semi-ghost. He meets Simon Strulovich in the cemetery, Simon is here to look at the new stone over his mother’s grave; Shylock is always here, mourning his wife Leah and regretting the loss of his daughter, Simon has also lost a daughter, he thinks.
As in the play, what has hurt Shylock most is that Jessica has exchanged Leah’s ring for a monkey; Simon has a more complicated view of what his daughter, Beatrice has exchanged. The two men get talking and strike up something of a relationship. The novel explores the various aspects of their lives and backgrounds, the similarities and somewhere along the line they begin to understand each other better and form a remarkable friendship.
There are a great many other characters who in their own ways mirror the ones in the play, and play their parts in the unfolding drama. This book, also set in the United States, has all the hall-marks of Jacobson’s wit, which comes with more than a touch of the Hebrew. Many people, more than those who do not, love and appreciate this often biting humour, it passes me by, I am afraid – but I accept that this is my loss.
The other book published so far in this series is Jeanette Winterson‘s cover version of The Winter’s Tale, this I absolutely loved. In The Gap of Time, she explores many of the same themes as the play: the almost insane jealousy which springs from nowhere, the havoc this causes, the pain of misunderstandings and the possibilities of reconciliation; there are foundlings and there is romance.
This works, mostly because Ms Winterson utterly understands and loves the original and her interpretation, which swings between New Bohemia, USA and London, England brings many of the issues of identity and parenthood sharply into focus. Also, one more or less has to be a troglodyte not to know something of Ms Winterson’s own background and experience which has fed into this marvellously re-worked story.
There are more to come, watch this space…