Anne Tyler’s retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew sits comfortably in rom-com territory, sparked to life by the authors gift to produce genuine moments of hilarity. Yes, the plot is waif-thin, and its surprises are few, but Vinegar Girl is like a warm hug, and you won’t want to leave its embrace.
I read The Taming of the Shrew many years ago, and wasn’t especially enamoured by it, nor the supposed masterful adaptation 10 Things I Hate About You, which my peers have been pushing on me since its 1999 release. Vinegar Girl ended up in my hands because Anne Tyler’s name was attached – just as Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet will end up in my reading pile purely because of her literary clout. So The Taming of the Shrew holds no special place in my heart, all I really expected from Vinegar Girl was what’s promised on the blurb: a witty and irresistible contemporary take on one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies. And that’s what I got.
Kate Battista is our lead, and she’s not in a great place when the novel begins, stuck running home for her eccentric scientist father and haughty younger sister, Bunny. Work doesn’t offer much solace either. While her pre-school class adores her – Kate works as a teacher’s assistant since she quit studying – their parents, and the school staff, don’t appreciate her forthright nature, and she’s on shaky ground with the principal. At the age of 29, Kate feels chewed and spat out: she’s coasting on a wave to oblivion. Her father has his own problems. After years on the periphery of the elite academic circles – a lonely wilderness – he is on the verge of a breakthrough. Trouble is, his young lab assistant, Pyotr, who is vital to the success of Dr. Battista’s project, is about to be deported to Russia. So Kate’s father develops an outrageous plan to keep Pyotr in the country: an impromptu marriage, with his eldest daughter the bride.
The comedy revolves around Kate – a wholly independent woman – dealing with these two men in her life desperately trying to placate her immediate anger, then gradually chip away at her sovereignty. The Taming of the Shrew has always been burdened by its inherent sexism, but in Tyler’s adaptation Kate never loses her independence, or has her idiosyncrasies tamed. In fact, come the final pages, when Vinegar Girl pulls away from its warm embrace you’ve been enjoying, you can’t help but feel satisfied and uplifted. Because at its heart, this is a feel-good story about finding a mate who loves you for who you are. Finding love isn’t about reformatting your personality to suit another’s; it’s about finding that perfect match, whose eccentricities parallel your own. And sometimes the way in which this happens, the way in which you meet – as is the case for Kate – is improbable, and on reflection, preposterous. And makes for one hell of a good read.