After reading Jeanette Winterson’s novel “The Gap of Time”, I was thrilled to see that the Hogarth Shakespeare series also includes a new novel from Anne Tyler - one of my favourite authors. Winterson brilliantly combined her writing style and individual sensibility to open a dialogue with Shakespeare’s ideas/themes from The Winter’s Tale. I was a big advocate and fan of Tyler’s previous novel “A Spool of Blue Thread” last year which divided a lot of people, but I found it to be an inventive and meaningful story about generations of family life. Now Anne Tyler has given her “spin” on The Taming of the Shrew with this new novel “Vinegar Girl”. Firstly, I must admit that Shrew is the play by Shakespeare that I like the least. I find its ambiguous take on gender politics grating and more than anything I find the story to be rather dull. I even dislike Cole Porter’s musical ‘Kiss Me, Kate’ despite being a big fan of Porter’s music otherwise. So it’s an interesting experiment to pair Tyler with this problematic work by the Bard.
Tyler transposes the story of The Taming of the Shrew to the modern day and her familiar territory of Baltimore. Kate Battista is a young teacher’s assistant who is “big boned and gawky.” She takes care of both her father Louis, a distracted scientist working relentlessly on researching an autoimmune disease, and her popular teenage sister Bunny (Bernice) who outshines her with golden girls and a newfound interest in animal rights’ activism. Meanwhile, Kate makes horrifying sounding dinners with a dish she calls “meat mash” and comes perilously close to losing her job from expressing her opinions too bluntly to her young pupils and their parents. Louis’ lab assistant Pyotr lives in America on a work visa which will soon expire. To continue his important research Louis plots to marry Kate off to him to keep him in the country. Both Pyotr and Kate have somewhat abrasive personalities and awkward social skills. A comic story ensues.
The most successful parts of this novel were Kate’s interactions at the “Little People’s School” between the children and teachers. She generally doesn’t like most of the children and often treats them with a level of contempt where it’s remarked “It wasn’t true that she hated children. At least, a few she liked okay. It was just that she didn’t like all children, as if they were uniform members of some microphylum or something.” It is quite funny how straightforward she is with these children who are only four years old and how her manner totally goes against current prevailing attitudes of coddling young people to ensure each feels special. There are a number of enjoyably tense scenes with the principal Mrs Darling where you can feel her polite sunny veneer flaking away and her frustration over Kate’s unapologetic blunt manner growing.
Tyler is also excellent at portraying minute actions in the way family members react to and relate to one another to show imbalances. Kate has been pushed into a mothering role since the family lost their mother which is something she readily accepted at first but now she finds herself turned into an unpleasant person. Louis increasingly takes her for granted requiring her to bring him his lunch and do his taxes. Bunny’s transformation into a hungry-for-romance teen means that Kate feels her sister has “changed into this whole other person, this social person, I don’t know; this social, outgoing person. And somehow she turned me into this viperish, disapproving old maid when I’m barely twenty-nine. I don’t know how that happened!” It’s moving the way that Tyler shows how people morph into certain roles within family life which they feel helpless to extract themselves from. Rather than taking an independent stand, Kate takes the rather non-feminist decision of using marriage as a way of getting out of her constrictive family circumstances.
This is where the novel somewhat troubles me. Both Louis and Pyotr treat Kate abysmally at some points and act in a horrendously selfish manner. Rather than expressing her intolerance for this behaviour or leaving them, Kate expresses an understanding for their foibles because that’s the way men are and she softens her acid tone. She delivers a speech at the end stating this in a way which is carefully modified from Katherine’s famous open-to-interpretation monologue at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t find the development of the difficult relationship between Kate and Pyotr convincing. Rather than elucidate the building relationship of these problematic characters, Tyler gets bogged down in tedious details like methods of loading the dishwasher or the laborious process of cooking an egg. It felt overall like Tyler got too bogged down with trying to rejuvenate the mechanics of the Bard’s story rather than making the tale wholly her own as Winterson ingeniously did. Although “Vinegar Girl” is an enjoyable read I don’t think it’s Tyler’s best.