Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
Digital Audiobook narrated by Kirsten Potter
Published by Hogarth on June 16, 2016
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #3
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Retellings, Romance
Length: 240 pages or 5 hours, 57 minutes
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‘You can’t get around Kate Battista as easily as all that’
Kate Battista is feeling stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but the adults don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner.
Dr Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr…
When Dr Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to win her round?
Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew asks whether a thoroughly modern, independent woman like Kate would ever sacrifice herself for a man. Its answer is as individual, off-beat and funny as Kate herself.
If I’m being completely honest, Vinegar Girl was a bit of a bust for me. I blame most of it on the source material – writing a modern version of The Taming of the Shrew is no small feat. Our climate called for a twist – we want Kate to be a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need a man to escape and make her happy, and well, let’s just say I didn’t expect the ending? And I know I should have liked it on some level, but I felt a bit let down.
Anne Tyler focused a lot of getting Kate’s personality across as sour and unpleasant. She’s naive to her rudeness, she’s intentionally brusque, and he self-worth is nothing. Her sister, called “Bunny”, is such a stereotypically “dumb blonde” type – blonde, fifteen, sneaking in boys and calling them her tutors because she’s failing her classes. The narrator made sure every line ended with a question. In one of Bunny’s opportunities to shine, she instead chose to make the stupidest, most selfish argument. I was so frustrated. So many of these characters are purposeful stereotypes. I know I shouldn’t hate on characters for not being the type of characters I like – because they really were consistent, at least! – but I just… I was so disappointed in all of them. Consistently.
This is a really short book – even the audiobook was just over five hours – so I feel like there wasn’t a lot of time to get into substance. Whole aspects were introduced into the story – like Kate’s gardening and her father’s project. I constantly felt like there were underlying things that could have made this story a lot richer, but in the interest of keeping the book concise, this stuff was dropped to try to give the characters a smidge more of personality. And it didn’t work.
Like I said, I think The Taming of the Shrew is a tricky retelling. The fundamental base of the story is that unattractive, unkind sister Katherine must be married off because a couple of guys want to marry her younger sister Bianca, but Bianca can’t be married until Kate is. Petruchio tricks Kate into thinking he’s a good match and takes her home to train her to be a good, obedient wife. Kate is “tamed” by the end. There are other storylines within the play, but the theme of women as possessions has always bothered me in the play, and I don’t feel like Anne Tyler resolved that issue in Vinegar Girl. Neither of these girls seemed to think for themselves. Even Kate, who ultimately made her own decision, seemed more to accept and make the best of it rather than embrace it. There are issues measured out against her choice about halfway through the book, and they are not addressed.
Additionally, Vinegar Girl had one of those “lets skip forward ten years and resolve everything” endings and those have to be used right, or they just feel like cheap endings. A lot of Vinegar Girl felt like a rushed story. The Hogarth Shakespeare books are contracted out, with authors sought to create modern retellings. I haven’t read any of Anne Tyler’s other work, but I very much get the impression that this was a quick write the meet a deadline. Not memorable in the least, and barely intriguing.
Overall, eh. I don’t think I can really recommend this book? I don’t not recommend it, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a straight out bad book, but there’s nothing special going for it. If you’re a huge fan of The Taming of the Shrew, it’s an interesting exercise. However, if you have the opportunity, I strongly suggest catching a performance of Kiss Me, Kate instead for a more modern retelling of this play.
How do you feel about books that are contracted from authors vs. original ideas? I find it really depends on the author. I liked Hag-Seed which was part of this same project, but I’ve already read media tie-ins that haven’t worked at all. I’d love to hear your experience – let me know in the comments!