My book club picked Vinegar Girl (2016) by Anne Tyler. It had good reviews, and I think everyone was happy that it was a relatively short novel. According to Amazon, Vinegar Girl was a result of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project. The goal was to retell works by William Shakespeare for a more modern audience. Vinegar Girl is a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.
I obviously know of The Taming of the Shrew, but I’ve never read it. I’ve heard it has problems with misogyny. However I have seen, and really enjoyed, 10 Things I Hate About You, and that is the extent of my familiarity with the subject matter.
Kate Battista is 29 years old. She is kind of stuck in a rut, and is not particularly happy. After dropping out of college because of philosophical differences with a professor (she thought he was stupid), she’s been helping her father at home and working as a teacher’s aide at a pre-school. Kate also helps to watch over her high school-aged sister, Bunny. Her mother died years ago, and they have an odd family life. Dr. Battista is so focused on his research that he doesn’t really know how to care for his daughters, and he takes Kate for granted.
Then Dr. Battista’s research assistant, Pyotr, has immigration issues that will keep him from staying in the country. Dr. Battista’s solution to the problem of losing his very efficient and able assistant is to offer up his daughter for marriage so that Pyotr can get a green card.
At first Kate wants nothing to do with the scheme. She hates the idea, she’s hurt that her father even suggested it, and she doesn’t like Pyotr. But he slowly grows on her as the two of them are thrust together by her father. They get along pretty well. As things progress Kate’s father assumes Pyotr will move into his house with Kate and Bunny. That way, he gets his assistant and doesn’t lose his in-home help. However, Pyotr suggests that Kate live with him in his apartment after the marriage. The idea of freedom from her father’s home and tasks is so appealing that Kate goes along with it.
This book was a fast read and felt slightly unreal, so I found myself not too attached to the characters. However, I found the novel interesting, and I did want Kate to find herself in a better position. Unfortunately, I am unable to compare and contrast this novel with the play. But the book seems to be more about Kate creating her own life and getting away from her controlling father than a husband “taming” her. I guess the modern version is Pyotr making it possible for his wife to be happier because she’s doing the things she loves. After reading the synopsis of the play, it sounds like I would likely have had problems with the content.
My least favorite part of the book was near the end. Out of the blue, Pyotr acts aggressive and mean. He is stressed, but he is very unlikable in the moment. And then Kate excuses Pyotr’s behavior toward her and others because men have such a hard time when they bottle up their feelings and can’t express them like women. It is still much more “acceptable” for women to share their feelings than men, which is detrimental to everyone involved, so I don’t necessarily disagree. But Pyotr didn’t seem like one that bottled up his feelings, and it didn’t seem to fit his situation. I didn’t understand why that reasoning led Kate to finally “understand” Pyotr.
I now have a slight interest in reading the play, but I’m afraid it’s going to annoy my and lessen my view of Shakespeare.
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