Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler: A review

Vinegar GirlVinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The retelling of classics by modern authors seems to be all the rage in the literary world these days, witness the Austen Project from which I have now read three books. This book is part of another such project, the Hogarth Shakespeare Series. It launched in 2015 and this is the third book to be released in the series.

I am perhaps an even bigger fan of Anne Tyler than I am of Shakespeare - and I really do like the Bard - so the prospect of the two combined was completely irresistible to me. Anyway, I generally try to read Anne Tyler books pretty much immediately after they are published and so I pounced on this one, and, boy, am I glad I did! It's a hoot!

This is a retelling of The Taming the Shrew. There have been countless adaptations of this story of the stubborn woman who rebels against society's expectations of her. I remember well seeing the old movie, Kiss Me Kate, starring Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, that was made in the early 1950s. I saw it sometime in the '60s or early '70s and it was still fun to watch. There were also television adaptations of the play that I remember less well, and, somewhere along the way, I actually read it. Anne Tyler has, I think, been true to the original spirit of the play in her retelling.

Tyler's "shrew," Kate Battista, lives in Baltimore. Of course! Where else would a Tyler heroine live? Kate is a 29-year-old unmarried woman who lives with her eccentric scientist father and her teenage sister, Bunny. She is the stabilizing influence in her family, the one everyone looks to to get things done and keep everything on an even keel. And she is the one that everyone takes for granted.

She is an assistant teacher of four year olds at the local preschool, where the kids all love her directness and no-nonsense treatment of them, but the parents are not so sure about her. Complaints are common and Kate is constantly in trouble with the head teacher.

Her father is deeply involved in a years-long research project that may be about to show some actual results, but his brilliant lab assistant, Pyotyr, on whom he depends, is in danger of being deported if he cannot upgrade his immigrant status and procure a green card. Dr. Battista concocts a desperate scheme. Pyotyr can upgrade his status if he is married to an American; Dr. Battista has an unmarried daughter; ipso facto, the solution to all his problems is obvious: He will convince Kate to marry Pyotyr. After all, how hard could it be?

The plot proceeds on a somewhat parallel course with the original, only updated to fit the norms of the modern world. Kate Battista is every bit as stubborn, witty, and appalled by her father's and society's expectations of her as the original character and she rebels against the straitjacket they have fashioned for her.

But Pyotyr, she finds to her surprise, is, in his own way, just as straightforward and without pretensions as she is. Moreover, he may be the first person to really see her as she is and to be concerned about what she wants to do with her future. Kate finds her defenses and her objections to her father's master plan melting. The result of fate throwing two such characters together has been thoroughly predictable from even before Shakespeare's time.

Tyler seemed to be having a really good time with this story. There were a number of laugh-out-loud funny moments for me, especially toward the end of the book. And it is a very short book, a quick read, just a bit over 200 pages. If one were able to sit still long enough, it could be read in one sitting. Since I can't do that, I managed to read it over a couple of days.

If this is the standard set for the Hogarth Shakespeare Series, then readers are definitely in for a lot of good reading as the series continues. Meantime, I need to go back and pick up those two earlier books that I missed when they first came out. I can hardly wait! 

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  1. I also just read this! Love your review. I wrote mine for my reviewing job at Litbreak and it will be coming out there soon and later on my blog. I too found it the novel very funny. Enjoy the earlier ones. I did!

    1. I'm looking forward to reading the other books. I love the concept of updating Shakespeare.


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