Here’s my book review of Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler.
Vinegar Girl is a title in the publisher’s Hogarth Shakespeare series, which implies the book was inspired by one of the Bard’s plays. Tyler’s romantic comedy is not so much a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew (which Broadway musical fans will recognize as Kiss Me, Kate) as it is a latter-day riff on its theme.
The main character’s name is Kate, which is the key similarity to the old tale, but this Kate is by no means a shrew. She’s an independent woman. (And perhaps that’s the essential point.) It’s not that this Kate hates men – she’s mostly indifferent to them. She honors her father, widowed Dr. Louis Battista, a ditsy research scientist who spends most of his time holed up in his lab with dozens of mice. She indulges her sister Bunny, a teen-with-attitude who (no surprise) won’t clean her room or do her own laundry.
Kate tends to the two of them in a big, old house and not only washes their clothes but also cooks and does just enough housekeeping to avoid the appearance of a rat’s nest. As well, she works as an assistant at a private preschool where the teachers are mostly fussy older women who disapprove of both her unmarried status and her wardrobe, which consists of jeans and tops and the one denim skirt she wears when her pants are all in her neglected pile of laundry.
She’s not unattractive – she’s tall and slender with olive skin and long, silky black hair. But she hasn’t had a date in mouse-ages, and she isn’t sufficiently motivated to go after the only male teacher at the school, who happens to be about her age and presumably unattached. But her life’s awkward routine changes suddenly when the doctor formulates a solution to a problem that has been nagging him: The work visa of his brilliant research assistant Pyotr is due to expire. A neat resolution would be to induce Kate to marry him so the klutzy fellow needn’t go back to Russia before their research project is completed.
How this plays out won’t come as a surprise if you know your Shakespeare or your Cole Porter. As in Tyler’s other novels, the emotional turning point is subtle. One clue is an exchange between Pyotr and Kate when she warns him that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Kate begins to realize that his grasp of English is much better than he lets on when he wryly asks his “vinegar girl” why she would even want to catch flies.
Happily ever after? Gimme a break – what world do you live in? But as Kate might say if you pressed her, if she’d wanted to be bored she’d have married someone else.
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