Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler review

Warning: review contains spoilers  

Hi everyone! This is my review for Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler which is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. For those who might be unfamiliar with the series, various authors have been given different Shakespeare plays to adapt into modern retellings. As I’m a massive fan of Shakespeare, and obviously write a book blog, I thought I would read and review them all in between the other reviews. Some have already been released while there are plenty more in the pipeline, so if you’ve already read one or are really excited about a particular adaptation, drop me a comment as I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And now on to the review! Vinegar Girl has set the action of The Taming of the Shrew in Baltimore, with the novel following Kate Battista, a 29 year old pre-school assistant who lives with her autoimmune professor father Louis and teenage sister Bunny. Juggling her job plus household duties, Kate is unfulfilled with life. However it is all about to change, as her father arranges for her to meet his lab partner Pyotr. His visa is set to expire soon, and with her father’s work nearing a significant breakthrough and Kate’s lack of romantic options, she is faced with a bizarre proposition; will she marry Pyotr so he can remain in the country?

I will be honest, The Taming of the Shrew is not one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. But it is a damn sight better than Vinegar Girl. My biggest gripe is with the characters. I was shocked to learn that Kate was 29. From the way she was portrayed I had assumed late teens/early twenties. She seemed very stroppy and sullen throughout, not one ounce of wit compared to her Shakespearean counterpart. There were one or two moments of vulnerability from her, but not enough for me to actually feel sorry for her plight. Kate just seemed like a teen going through a ‘I hate everyone/everything’ phase. The fact she had that attitude but also did nothing to change her circumstances, really irked me. I think this total lack of initiative also made the fact she was a grown woman unbelievable. She has a job, if she doesn’t like having to live with her family, she could surely afford to move out?!

The other characters do not fare much better. Louis Battista is the stereotypical ‘mad scientist’, putting his work before everything, including his daughters. Bunny comes across again as the stereotypical ‘blonde bimbo’, although to be fair to Tyler she breaks out of this later in the novel (I’ll mention why later). The biggest victim to the stereotype is Pyotr. Although it is never explicitly said, it is alluded to that he is Russian. At first I was interested. There could be the possibility of a culture clash, something I hadn’t seen in versions of Taming. This could bring something new to the story. No. I was wrong. Instead most of the jokes seemed to revolve around his accent, his forgotten or mispronounced words being a recurring gag. It was a cheap laugh that I didn’t find funny, just lazy. I was disappointed in Tyler as I think she is very talented and she could have come up with much better, nuanced portrayals than these.

But (if you want to avoid spoilers you might want to stop here) when I got to the second half of the book, my disappointed increased tenfold. My main problem with Taming is the portrayal of women, especially Kate after she marries Petruchio and he basically abuses her into submission. I know this is me reading an Elizabethan play from a modern perspective, and I know I probably shouldn’t do that, but I still find it uncomfortable. So when Pyotr started to show signs of being emotionally abusive, I was curious as to how Tyler would handle this aspect of the story. How would Kate react? Her wishes are ignored, he constantly demeans her (another gag of his is to constantly refer to her as a ‘girl’ and she corrects him) and at one point openly yells at her like she was a badly behaved dog. What would she do?

Nothing. She does nothing and seems to ignore his actions. Bunny, who is the only character who seems to notice the abuse, even tells Kate that Pyotr broke into their neighbours’ house and assaulted Bunny’s boyfriend. He confirms this, suggesting that the man deserved it. Kate not only seemed totally fine with her partner committing battery, but even defends his actions. I was stunned. Here was someone who was verbally and physically abusive, yet was being portrayed as the romantic hero. The ‘happy’ ending made me incredibly angry. Maybe if Tyler wanted to highlight abuse and explore why people stay in harmful relationships via this adaptation I would not have a problem. But given that quotes on my edition’s cover includes ‘her funniest book to date’, ‘delightful’ and ‘beautiful’ I don’t think that was what she was intending.

Yes there were moments where I smiled to myself, particularly the scenes set in the pre-school. However there was nowhere near enough of those moments for me. Combined with lazy stereotypes and the glossing over of abuse, sadly I cannot recommend Vinegar Girl. Kiss me, Kate? No thank you.

If you would like more information, you can find Penguin’s website here.  

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