For every book we read during the book club, we try to write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Roy den Boer is our main reviewer for the book club books, judging all that we have picked.
Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project: acclaimed and bestselling novelists retell Shakespeare’s works. Vinegar Girl is a reworking The Taming of the Shrew. The original story goes as follows: a nobleman has two daughters. The younger is very desirable, but the nobleman requires the older, less desirable daughter to be married before the younger can be courted – hijinks ensue. There are a few things going against Tyler’s version of the work. One thing is that The Taming of the Shrew was already very successfully updated into the 90’s teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You. Another thing going against the book is that Tyler doesn’t seem to be trying particularly hard.
Vinegar Girl presents us Kate Battista as the shrew. Her father, a character whose depth is captured fully in the phrase ‘absent-minded professor’, tries to set her up with his lab assistant, Pyotr, because his green card is about to expire. There’s also still a younger sister, Bunny, but her relevance to the main plot has been lost in this translation. The modernization of the plot is mostly competent, although an asterisk perhaps should be placed next to ‘modern’. The book was more successful at evoking the world of a 1980’s sitcom than any truly modern world. The dialogue of the Russian Pyotr is rendered phonetically at times (“Khello!” Pyotr said). The Asian character also seems more appropriate to 1985 than attuned to the racial sensitivities of 2016 (Mrs. Liu flung the door open and demanded, “Why you ring?”).
The novel falters in delivering a shrew. Kate Battista is supposed to be, but she’s such a wet blanket character. In the opening of the novel she’s gardening when she’s interrupted by her father calling. The professor has forgotten his lunch and can she bring it by. “Sheesh,” she said, and she slammed the receiver down and took the lunch bag from the counter. And so she brings him his lunch. Kate takes care of the household and works at a preschool where the kids mostly just say the darndest things. We’re told she’s not happy with her life, but we get this through little more than Kate grumbling to herself that she would’ve gone to college if her mother hadn’t died. Certainly, it wouldn’t serve the character to be shrewish about the untimely death of her mother and toward a bunch of toddlers, but Kate just becomes a character completely defined by being burdened which isn’t interesting.
The book is filled out by a side plot involving environmentalists stealing the mice from the lab. Bunny, lacking any other relevance, is pushed into this story. She likes a boy who’s an environmentalist and she decides to become a vegetarian. In the world of Vinegar Girl this is apparently madness. “Why not just join a cult?” Kate asks her. When the lab mice are stolen Pyotr immediately assumes Bunny must have stolen them, after all she is a vegetarian. The plot, like this leap in logic, seems half baked at best. This part of the story is trying to be a farce, but a farcical plot doesn’t work when rendered with such sloppiness.
The thing that fundamentally undoes Vinegar Girl is a void at the heart of it. It seems painfully clear that Tyler has zero reason to write this book or passion for the story. The motivation is a paycheck offered by the Hogarth Project. This may sound too cynical, but the book just reads like Tyler found a plot that would mirror Taming of the Shrew enough to work and then pounded out a draft of the book. There is nothing communicated, nothing truly considered in this book. Vinegar Girl feeling like a first draft is perhaps best embodied by the character Adam, a co-worker of Kate’s. Kate clearly has a crush on him at the beginning of the novel. We only ever read about him being a nice guy. Other women at work have crushes too. Kate smiles when he’s around. He gives Kate a gift when he hears she’s engaged. Then toward the end of the book she thinks of Adam one more time and reaches a conclusion: [Adam] was not the kind of person who liked her true self, for better or worse. This is a maddening conclusion, because this story wasn’t told in the book. Kate doesn’t hit on him and gets rejected. He doesn’t tell Kate to change. Nothing is done to earn this oddball conclusion.
I didn’t need Tyler to put blood, sweat and tears into this book. I was perfectly willing to be entertained by some charming characters going through the back and forth of a romantic comedy plot. But as you read the book these moments of outright careless characterization and plotting start to pile up and start to weigh down the lightness of the story. Why should I care if the writer didn’t?