Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
Despite the name, Vinegar Girl is a sweetly cute book. Not without its problems, but still cute. You may have heard of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, wherein the latest authors write retellings of The Bard’s works. Margaret Atwood wrote a retelling of The Tempest, Gillian Flynn is scheduled to write a retelling of Hamlet (even though we have to wait until frikkin’ 2021 for it!), and as you may have guessed, Vinegar Girl is too a retelling with its origin being The Taming of the Shrew. I have an affection for The Taming of the Shrew, despite its “little” misogyny problem. Mostly because my 9th-grade drama class put on what became a disastrous performance that was held at a movie theater that was between proper ownership (it went on to become an indie theater and then a Harris Teeter. Grr.) where nobody knew their lines and 3 people were backstage at all times feeding us lines. Good times!
As promised, Vinegar Girl provides a modern update to the Shrew story: Kate Battista lives at home with her father and 15-year old sister Bunny, nee Bianca. Kate, who has long been expelled from university after mouthing off to a professor, more or less runs the house by making sure the clothes are laundered, the food is made, the groceries are bought, etc. while Louis Battista, her father, works endlessly at his lab trying to find the “single unified key to autoimmune disorders.” Part of Louis’ research involves bringing in Pyotr Shcherbakov from Russia on an O-1 visa, a type of visa reserved for folks who have an extraordinary skill that no one else in the country has. Pyotr’s visa is about to expire, but Louis wants to keep him in America by any means possible, so his plan is to convince Kate into marrying Pyotr. Naturally, the focus of the story is Kate and Pyotr, leaving the reader with a very skimpy version of the original work, as Bunny’s side story of suitor hijinks is completely cut out. Granted, Bunny’s Spanish “tutor,” Edward does feature in the story to some degree, but Bunny’s primary purpose is to be the chorus, if you will, of “WTH, Kate?! Dad is being crazy with this marriage idea!”
Kate is not so much as acerbic but just stubborn and socially inept (although it’s very clear that it’s mostly from being raised by her socially inept father whose sole focus is his scientific work). She often gets in trouble at the pre-school that employs her as a teacher’s assistant for being snarky and a touch too brutally honest. What’s charming about Vinegar Girl is that this quality is one of the things that Pyotr finds charming about this so-called shrew (there’s a funny scene where Kate is gardening and Pyotr jokingly calls her a shrew and as a gardener, her immediate response is “WHERE?!”). Instead of her prickly personality being quashed, Kate’s “taming” comes from being accepted for she is, by Pyotr, who appreciates Kate for who she is. Not bad for a modern update of the play where the lady is essentially bullied into submission.
Unfortunately, Vinegar Girl is not without its flaws. It’s not a Taming of the Shrew retelling without the Katherine character giving a big speech at the end. Sorry, y’all, but 10 Things I Hate About You does this part so much better than Vinegar Girl. Kate Battista’s speech is almost strange, wherein she waxes about it’s “hard being a man” because men are expected to hide their feelings versus women are expected to be emotional. The writing is very clumsy here because although I understood what Tyler was trying to say through Kate, that yes, the patriarchy hurts EVERYONE and not just women, it was hard to swallow as a justifiable ending. Instead of Kate talking about how for once, someone accepts her for who she is, we get this “it’s hard being a man!!11” speech. It feels very out of place in what’s supposed to be a modern update of a story whose focus is on a woman who does not meet societal expectations for femininity.
But? I still liked it. It was cute!