Vinegar Girl (2016): Anne Tyler


The Taming of the Shrew Retold

I’ve been reading quite a lot of serious books recently and I wanted a bit of a break with something light and upbeat. This installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which contemporary writers reimagine the playwright’s storylines, was just the trick. Now, I’ll be honest, no modern reworking of the Shrew can match 10 Things I Hate About You in my estimation but, that caveat stated, I thought Tyler’s take on things was light and fun.

Kate Battista is almost thirty years old and, at some point in the last ten years, has lost track of her dreams. Somehow she’s fallen into the rut of keeping house in Baltimore for her absent-minded scientist father and her empty-headed teenage sister Bunny, as well as working full time as a teaching assistant at a nursery school. It’s as if everyone else in life has had script notes that have eluded Kate: her high-school friends have moved away, her once-sisterly relationship with Bunny has crumbled during the latter’s adolescence, and her headmistress Mrs Darling worries about Kate’s lack of tact and diplomacy. And now, to make matters worse, fifteen-year-old Bunny has struck up an interest in the boy next door, who claims to be tutoring her in Spanish, and Kate’s father is entirely oblivious.

In fact, there’s only one thing on Kate’s father’s mind. Or two, if you count his beloved autoimmunity research. Dr Battista is worried sick at the prospect of losing his brilliant research assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov, who came to the states on an extraordinary three-year visa almost three years ago. Now that Dr Battista’s research is getting less attention, he’ll find it harder to argue for the crucial renewal of his young assistant’s visa. Unless there’s another way to ensure that Pyotr can stay in the States… And so Dr Battista conceives a cunning plan, which relies on the compliance of his world-weary, single elder daughter. It would be the perfect solution. If only he had discussed it with Kate first…

Sometimes I just need a burst of something fresh and funny. This isn’t a laugh-a-minute, but it makes the most of the absurd situation spiralling out of Kate’s control. It’s sweeter-natured than the original Shrew, with Kate putting up a fairly perfunctory fight and Pyotr (quite understandably) lacking Petruchio’s misogynistic aggression. It does verge on satire in Dr Battista’s desperate effort to document the non-existent relationship between his assistant and his daughter, snapping photos at every opportunities as ‘proof’ for the ever-looming Immigration committee. It would seem unbelievable if I didn’t have a friend who, some years ago, was in a broadly similar position and had had to assemble files of emails, receipts, utility bills and testimonies to prove her case.

There’s little dramatic tension, of course, because once you know the source material, you know roughly how things will turn out, but the charm is in getting there. Kate is an exasperated, over-burdened modern woman rather than a screaming hellion, and Pyotr is so insistently adorable that I think I fell for him before she did. It isn’t deep, and it isn’t something I really feel the need to come back to, but it’s fast-faced and fun. Recommended as a palate cleanser, liable to leave you feeling pleasantly warm and fuzzy.

This is the first book I’ve read by Anne Tyler, so which of her other works do you think I’d enjoy? All recommendations gratefully accepted, as ever!

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5 thoughts on “Vinegar Girl (2016): Anne Tyler

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    I have not read anything by Anne Tyler yet, but I watched the film by Lawrence Kasdan based on one of her novels, The Accidental Traveller. I loved that, in fact I’ve seen it several by times by now, and it’s one of my all-time favourite films. Of course, one can’t conclude from a film on a novel, and I strongly suspect that this might be one of those cases where the film (which I strongly recommend,if you don’t know it already – very moving and heart-warming without sacrifing the complexities of human emotions) is better than the books, but I’ve always meant to give Anne Tyler a try. Some day, I’m sure I will…

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Well, you know me, I’m always happy to watch films as well as read books. Thanks for this recommendation! Maybe I should seek out the book first and then try the film… or would that spoil things, I wonder?

  2. RT says:

    Heloise has pipped me – The Accidental Tourist (not Traveller) is a lovely film but I can reassure you/her that the book is absolutely lovely too. This is going back years but I remember thoroughly enjoying Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant too.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Excellent! I’ve seen a lot of people discussing A Spool of Blue Thread as well, but perhaps only because that seems to be another very recent novel by her. If both you and Heloise recommend her stories, she’s obviously an author I should take seriously… Thanks RT! x

  3. Heloise Merlin says:

    Ack, sorry for getting the title wrong – somewhat embarrassing to claim something as a favourite and then misremember the name! Blame it on me getting senile…

    And I do own the novel as well as APatchwork Planet by her – just haven’t gotten around to reading either of those yet. I really should, though…

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