Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare project, is basically a romantic comedy — the “indie” version, a bit quirky, a bit acidic, a bit sweet. In fact, it is both sweeter and more romantic than I expected: it has been decades since I read or saw The Taming of the Shrew, but at least in my memory, Shakespeare’s play is much more rambunctious and much harder to swallow, though that may be because the version I remember best is the Taylor / Burton one. I’ve also seen 10 Things I Hate About You more than once, and it too is harder-hitting than Vinegar Girl, though it is also more joyful.
Whether or not Vinegar Girl is an especially clever or original reworking of The Taming of the Shrew, it is enjoyable enough on its own terms, which are fairly undemanding. It moves us briskly through the story of its Katherine, a cranky, repressed older daughter whose life is divided between caring for her father (a dedicated but not terribly successful scientist) and her younger sister Bunny, and her job as a preschool teacher — an uncomfortable fit for her because, as she tells her father’s lab assistant Pyotr, she hates children.
She tells him this in disavowal of her father’s claim that she is “very domestic,” an unexpected (and misleading) endorsement that turns out to be part of his scheme to marry her to Pyotr, whose visa is about to expire. Though Pyotr has some of Petruchio’s domineer instincts, and a bad temper to match Kate’s, he is also the only person Kate has ever met who sees her, and who likes what he sees. Though at first Kate is insulted by the whole plan, which reflects the general opinion of everyone around her, including her father, that she will never find love on her own, she starts to appreciate Pyotr, and to see marriage to him as an opportunity to get away from a life she finds wholly unrewarding. “He listens to people,” she tells Bunny, who tries to talk her out of the marriage:
he pays attention. And did you hear what he said the other night about how maybe I’d want to go back to school? I mean, who else has ever suggested that? Who else has even given me a thought? Here in this house I’m just part of the furniture, somebody going nowhere, and twenty years from now I’ll be the old-maid daughter still keeping house for her father.
Pyotr even likes that she’s … blunt? direct? tactless? rude? “In my country they have proverb,” he tells Kate,
“Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.”
This was intriguing. Kate said, “Well, in my country, they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously. . . . “but why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”
As this line suggests, there’s not much taming in Tyler’s version, which I appreciated. Kate’s prickly personality instead is part of her appeal. Katherina’s famous closing speech becomes a rant from Katherine, not about how wives should lovingly obey their husband’s, but about how hard it is to be a man who always has to hide his feelings, while women “have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers.” “It’s like men and women are in two different countries,” she explains to Bunny, who accuses her of subordinating herself to Pyotr;
“I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”
I wasn’t actually convinced that she or Pyotr had earned quite that speech, but along with the epilogue that follows, it does show a happy ending that is based on mutual tolerance for both eccentricity and difficulty, which I liked. And the route there is strewn with funny moments, and the occasional touching one too. Maybe because I can be rather vinegary myself, I would have liked the novel better if it had made Kate harder to like, and admired it more if it had tried to go deeper than it does. Still, like Hag-Seed, Vinegar Girl gives the impression of an author enjoying the task she’s set herself, and that added to its charm.