Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
This is my first Anne Tyler book, I don’t know how that happened. Tyler is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Vinegar Girl is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare collection and is a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare. This is one of my favorite works simply because I loved the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. Which is probably an odd way of picking favorites, but I see Julia Styles and Heath Ledger as the Shakespeare characters and I can’t help but love it. I’ve been revisiting Shakespeare and other classics through other medias (YouTube, graphic novels, etc.) and I think a retelling fit this as well.
I received this as a Christmas gift, so I'm not sure where it was bought.
Title: Vinegar Girl
Author: Anne Tyler
Page Number: 237 in hardback
Genre: contemporary, romance, fiction
Publisher: Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House
Pulitzer Prize winner and American master Anne Tyler brings us an inspired, witty and irresistible contemporary take on one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies.
Kate Battista feels stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but their parents don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner.
Dr. Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr, all would be lost.
When Dr. Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to bring her around?
The main character of Vinegar Girl is Kate Battista, who lives with her father Dr. Battista and her younger sister Bunny. Kate has dropped out of university and moved home to take care of her absent father and her younger sister. She works part time at a nursery school and enjoys gardening. She seems to fill a “mother” archetype for her family, taking care of cooking, shopping, cleaning, laundry and taxes. Her younger sister Bunny (the "Bianca") is still in high school and has a much more robust social life. She’s flighty but not as important (except as the propeller of the crisis) for the story. Kate is a bit different, not fitting in with her co-workers or people her age. She’s often friendless as she navigates society.
Dr. Battista is a professor, researching something using mice at the local university. He’s absent from his family for the most part although he dictates what they eat (‘meat mash’) and he hopes that Kate is willing to go along with his plans for his academic future. Dr. Battista has an assistant, Pyotr Shcherbakov. Pyotr is the other main character (the "Petruchio" to Kate’s "Katherine") and is a foreign student who seems to be working towards his doctorate. His visa is set to expire soon, and Dr. Battista is worried that it will not be renewed as their research isn’t going forward in a manner that the university likes. While the university isn’t named as far as I could find, the setting is Baltimore.
The only other character of note is Bunny’s Spanish tutor, Edward Mintz (a pale summation of "Lucentio") who is the neighbor. Mintz is older and has not done much since he graduated high school. Kate’s co-workers, boss and some members of her family make appearances throughout.
It’s a slow read at first, I had to push myself to continue through as setting up Kate’s life was needed. Kate has no friends; her family is unsupportive, and she’s had no serious romances. She goes to work and then comes home to more work. While she’s not trapped to a lifetime of drudgery, she does get the short stick quite a bit. Kate is practical in a family devoid of practicality. She muddles through without rocking the boat but also without sugar coating her interactions. Her father puts an idea to her (on page 58) for her to marry his assistant (a stranger to her) so that Pyotr can stay in the country and continue helping him with his research. Dr. Battista feels that he’s on the verge of a breakthrough and cannot afford to lose Pyotr. An argument ensues as the request really is ludicrous and Dr. Battista informs Kate that since she has no one it isn’t that awful of a suggestion. Dr. Battista has a strong practicality as well, but his reactions to other people can come out as thoughtless and even vicious. Kate feels bad after their exchange, but not defeated as she has no interest in getting to know Pyotr or in marrying him.
Later, Dr. Battista explains that this marriage is assuredly just for the authorities. They would be sleeping and living apart (but under Dr. Battista’s roof of course). Kate, who is still a bit down, says she’ll think about it but Dr. Battista sees victory. Kate eventually gives in after meeting with Pyotr on several occasions. Bunny is horrified, pointing out that Kate is being treated as chattel, a human sacrifice and that their father only cares about the lab instead of his two daughters. In fact, Kate yearns for someone in her family (or co-workers) to raise a stink about her sudden marriage to man she doesn’t know but only Bunny points out how odd it all is. The morning of the wedding, Bunny comes to talk to Kate again, reminding her she doesn’t have to marry Pyotr and that she (Bunny) doesn’t like him.
By the time that the wedding has come around, Kate has gotten a taste for what her life could be. Pyotr has defied Dr. Battista, refusing to live in the house. He notes Bunny’s calculated nature (something Dr. Battista ignores) and feels that Kate could go back to get a degree if she wants. In an odd way, Pyotr has given Kate the chance for some freedom and Kate seems to be excited about it all. Through the interactions between Kate and Pyotr, Pyotr’s wants (a family since he’s an orphan) add a dimension to his character. While he’s a scientist on a mission and sometimes brusque, he’s determined to make his new family situation work out for his benefit (even charming Kate’s virago of an Aunt). Pyotr is never fully fleshed out (I’m assuming he’s from Russia, but I’m not super sure. Kate refers to Oligarchs and Kate’s Aunt worries that Pyotr would prefer vodka instead of champagne…which is a total Russian thing. Or you know, not Russian as a rule) but he moves to be supportive of Kate who learns to be more on his side and less harsh on his quirks. Several people mention that Pyotr is good looking and he seems well liked.
The wedding itself happens on page 191 (about 80% into the book). It’s the climatic point of the book. Kate and her immediate family enter the church but Pyotr is missing. He’s late because of an incident in the lab. When Kate texts him he reveals that someone has broken in and stolen the genetically engineered mice that Dr Battista’s research is on. Dr. Battista is horrified and tells Kate there’s no reason for the marriage now (which sends Kate into a depressive state) and snaps at Bunny. Pyotr finally arrives at the wedding, shabbily dressed and in a rage about the mice. He accused Bunny and her tutor, Edward Mintz, of orchestrating the theft. The police were called at the lab and he had to fill out a police report. He and Kate decide to marry anyways, in between the wedding ceremony Dr. Battista and Pyotr talk about the mice. In fact, Dr. Battista only stays for the wedding because Kate insists, he had wanted to dip out to go see the lab.
After the ceremony, Kate and Pyotr go back to his apartment where he tells her how frustrating it is to be in America and not understand all the customs, quirks and language nuances (my foreign friends have mentioned this can be truly annoying, Americans are friendly and informal but might not mean what they say. Like, if you say, “oh we should meet up sometime!” but you don’t really make any effort to do that) but notes that he is now a stranger in his home country, meaning he has no place. Kate adds in the thought of toxic masculinity, the inability for some men to feel that they could talk about emotional tolls. In fact, this is Kate’s speech at the end of the book. In Shakespeare’s version, Katherine lectures all the other women to obey their husbands because blah blah blah but, in this version, Kate’s end speech is about how it can be destructive to be a man because of toxic masculinity (page 232). It kind of works but it’s a bit awkward.
The mice are found at the end of the book, Bunny was technically innocent although she was aware of the theft. The epilogue has a happy ending with Kate and Pyotr still married and Kate being a botanist.
The food and drink in this book is something else. Dr. Battista microwaves wine. The ‘meat mash’ is…less than appealing. Tyler easily put me off dinner.
The book, as it stands, was decent. A solid read and I did enjoy it more when Kate and Pyotr became more conspiratorial in their marriage plan instead of Dr. Battista calling the shots. While I enjoy Shakespeare’s play because of the movie, the play itself doesn’t translate as it is in a modern world with a more nuanced view of manhood and women’s rights/equality. While Tyler addresses it, I think it’s hard to rework the script in a way that stays true to the original. For instance, the book jacket described Dr. Battista’s machinations as ‘touchingly ludicrous’ and I disagree about a million per cent. Dr. Battista was a villainous jerk-off to me because of his neglect of his children, his disinterest in Kate’s happiness and his focus on his own self-interest. It was just hard for me to like him at all.
The book was also too short to really go into depth on Kate or Pyotr, so while it did end up being a fast read for me I did wish that Anne Tyler had just let loose and explored their quirks more. I think because of that I spent the first part of the book trying to figure out what was wrong with Kate before realizing that maybe nothing was truly wrong with her. She’s not shrewish but just brutally honest without the good sense to realize that maybe she shouldn’t tell a paying parent of the day care their kid isn’t the most talented angel. She’s forthright but without the sense for the modern world. It’s odd.
I enjoyed the second part more than the first as there was more depth to the characters and the plot had more action in it. Tyler managed to rope me in. I would say the prose is straight forward and I saw no mistakes. I wish there was more to the book because the most interesting aspect was Kate turning from a listless house drone to a self-assured botanist, but this is a light read.
The Vinegar Girl is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project which is intriguing as they have some knockouts writing these retelling. Other than Tyler, Gillian Flynn, Howard Jacobson, Margaret Atwood, Jeannette Winterson, Tracy Chevalier, Edward St. Aubyn, and Jo Nesbo are signed on.
I think six or seven books are out now, but I’ve only read Tyler’s book, although I do have Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth. It seems most of the authors chose the more dramatic Shakespeare works which is admirable, but I enjoy the comedies more.
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