Book Review – Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

books, reviews

Rating: 3 out of 5.

After reading French Braid earlier this year, I decided that it was time to read more Anne Tyler. I decided to start with the book that I’ve had on my shelf for over 5 years. Just as I initially did with the contemporary retellings of Jane Austen novels, I completely bought into the idea of updating Shakespeare. I really wanted to read them all and see how good they were. In the end, I bought this one and then forgot all about it. I’m much more invested in Shakespeare than I am in Jane Austen. When they ended up being bad, I didn’t care much. I didn’t know how I’d feel about terrible Shakespeare retellings. Maybe Ann Tyler was the perfect place to start?

The Taming of the Shrew seems like an odd choice for a project to retell Shakespeare for contemporary readers. He never wrote women well but this has to be one of his worst offenders regarding sexism. Poor Kate is subjected to a lot of awful treatment and misogyny. I guess there must be some kind of appeal in trying to amend the original but you’re still hampered by trying to place the story in a modern setting. I often find with retellings that otherwise good authors get caught up in trying to hit specific plot points. That will only get harder when the story is so outdated and sexist.

Although I have to admit, I was fairly convinced to start with. I thought Anne Tyler’s approach to her novel was clever. Shakespeare’s tale concerns a man agreeing to marry off his oldest daughter to a man who wants to train her to be the perfect wife. Anne Tyler updates this to a man convincing his daughter to enter into a green card marriage with his lab assistant. It seemed like an inventive way to update the play. There are certain aspects of this idea that work quite well. The desperation of Kate’s father and his assistant, Pyotr, is convincing enough for it to just about carry the plot.

However, it doesn’t completely work. There are a few too many parts of the book that aren’t as easy to get on board with. I’d say the concept does start to fall apart towards the end and any potential it may have had starts to disappear. The real problem is that this book never really takes on an identity of its own. It remains painfully clear that this is being driven by a much older text. The premise isn’t quite enough to allow Vinegar Girl to escape its restraints. I’d love to see what Anne Tyler made of this story had she not been trying to rewrite Shakespeare.

Although, I will admit that this is still a relatively fun and enjoyable book. Tyler is an expert at writing very readable books. This is a quick book and it’s worth a read. It just feels like a shame to restrict a writer from picking up another writer’s story. For so much of this book, I was hoping that Tyler would take it in another direction. To put her own twist on the play. Instead, it all ends up being a bit disappointing. I guess that she does make the ending more appealing than Shakespeare does. Kate is given a little more agency here. I just wish she’d been given more. This hasn’t put me off Anne Tyler but it has put me off reading any more of the Hogarth Shakespeare novels.

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