Book: Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
Age/Genre: Adult Fiction/ Modern Shakespeare Retelling
Preferred Reading Environment: In the bath, so you can dunk your head and escape the book every once in a while.
Reading Accoutrements: a wine you won’t mind slugging during the really frustrating moments.
Content Notes: This book has an infuriating moment where it calls out abusive behavior, then allows it to continue like nothing’s wrong.
A while back I was looking through the book section of a thrift store, and a blue book with an artsy picture of a girl holding flowers caught my eye. I read the synopsis and the blurbs and asked my husband if he thought it looked interesting. He had seen it at the library where he worked and said he was pretty sure it had been popular when it came out a couple years ago, so I decided to give it a read.
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. As a former theatre kid and English major, I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare, but of course, you don’t have to be interested in the humanities to have a lot of exposure to Shakespeare’s works. Taming of the Shrew alone has been reworked countless times, the most notable to me being the 1999 movie 10 Things I Hate About You and the musical Kiss Me Kate. I feel like reading Shakespeare is a tradition a lot like Thanksgiving. Almost everyone participates to some extent, but most people don’t really enjoy it all that much.
As you may have anticipated, when it comes to my opinions on Shakespeare, things get… complicated. I love seeing Shakespeare’s plays on the stage, and I do enjoy reading the plays, albeit critically. The characters can be pretty awful though, especially when their interactions are measured against today’s conventions. Just because something was written over 400 years ago, doesn’t mean that you can’t criticize the author for intent. For example, I know Shakespeare’s views on women weren’t uncommon at the time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t criticize the representation of female characters in Taming of the Shrew and state that it’s clear Shakespeare didn’t have a positive view of women. The romantic relationships in Taming of the Shrew fail to respect the agency of female characters while also minimizing the seriousness of abusive and misogynistic male behavior. This may have been the norm when the play was written, but that doesn’t make it above criticism.
In fact, I think it’s really important to explore the problematic themes in works from the past that are still taught in our current culture and continue to inspire new stories, movies, and other forms of entertainment. The fact that Shakespeare’s works are the basis of so many works in popular culture means that these themes will be present, so it’s important to analyze them. As you might have guessed by now, I am not happy with how Vinegar Girl handles these problematic themes.
As I started reading Vinegar Girl, I was simultaneously interested and wary. The main character, Kate, is an almost-thirty-year-old woman whose life is in a holding pattern. She lives with her dad and cares for her high school-aged sister. Her dad basically treats her as a housekeeper and relies on her to do his taxes and make sure his day-to-day life runs smoothly. The plot and characters rely on a lot of stereotypes and tropes, but I was hopeful that the author would put a new spin on some of these, or force us to look at these overused traits in new ways.
I was disappointed.
I felt that the author built some interesting characters, but in keeping the plot faithful to the source material, these characters weren’t allowed to grow. Kate is shown as a strong-willed woman with “her own mind,” but she’s clearly lacking motivation and passion in her life. This doesn’t change throughout the novel. She allows herself to be herded where the men in her life want her to be, even when she recognizes what is happening. The word “abusive” is even used to refer to the behavior of the main romantic interest (“love” is not an appropriate word here), which I thought might lead to some interesting dissection of behavior. But no, the behavior is swept under the rug, the characters never discuss the problems, and the male lead continues to view women as beings that are there for his convenience only.
There were a lot of “ugh”s emitted as I read this book-exacerbated by the fact that the blatant sexism is kind of shown as a “cultural” thing with the main character, who happens to be Russian, even though the dad is just as bad, and is American.
I realize that a lot of the problems I have with this book stem from its source material. But considering that I’ve read and watched other media based on Taming of the Shrew, I do think that this could have been done a lot better. In 10 Things I Hate About You, Kate’s character has passions and dreams. The fact that the men in her life are trying to manipulate and control her is clearly a problem. In Vinegar Girl, it’s just the way things are. It’s not necessarily glorified, but at the same time, the ending (spoiler alert) is basically “and then they got married and had a baby, so everything is fine now.”
The only good things I can say about this book are that it was a quick, easy read and that the writing was engaging. Even though I was pretty sure half way through that I wasn’t going to be happy with the ending, I was still interested enough to keep reading to the end. This whole book could be read in a single bath session – preferably with some wine to slug through the particularly painful parts.