A Feature Review of
Vinegar Girl: A Novel
Reviewed by Cara Meredith
Yesterday afternoon, my son and I snuggled together at the local movie theater for the newly released Pixar feature, Finding Dory. While Dory – who might just be my spirit animal – did not disappoint, I couldn’t help but wonder about most of the preview trailers. Could Ghostbusters, Adventures in Babysitting and Pete’s Dragon, all favorites of mine from the late 70’s and 80’s, actually be reimagined into something better than the original?
I scanned the darkened room, hoping to lock eyes with another parent who understood my dilemma. But I was alone. The rest of the audience did as they were supposed to do: they stared straight ahead at the screen, absorbed in the entertainment.
It’s the same for us today.
You see, I can’t help but ask a similar question of Anne Tyler’s newest release, Vinegar Girl: can the original, a modernized retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, really be improved upon?
Ever a fan of The Bard (and of this play in particular), I jumped at the chance to read Tyler’s version. Although I hadn’t read anything by the author before, I was familiar enough with her name to know that her words would not disappoint.
I suppose that’s where it gets tricky: the book is an easy, fun read. You’ll laugh and giggle at the quick, snarky wit she appropriately captures through the character of preschool teacher Kate Battista. You’ll be rightly appalled at her father’s seemingly ignorant antics, and you’ll wonder if there’s more to her sweet and beautiful sister than meets the pleasing eye. Finally, you’ll find yourself perplexed as you cheer aloud for Kate’s potential love interest, Pyotr, who also happens to be her father’s research assistant.
And that’s when controversy ensues: Dr. Battista (Kate’s father) is on the verge of a medical breakthrough, but said medical breakthrough is bound not to happen if he loses his beloved research assistant to deportation.
In steps Kate, a voraciously independent woman who also happens to be overly dutiful toward her widowed father. He can’t seem to manage the responsibilities of running a household and caring for Kate’s younger sister, Bunny, let alone the responsibilities of running a lab without his beloved assistant.
So he asks his daughter to help a father out: marry the man. Marry the research assistant so he can stay in the country. Kate can divorce soon after, and she can continue to live (together) in the father’s house. Not only that, she can still continue to manage the cooking and cleaning responsibilities whilst caring for her younger sister.
It doesn’t stop there.
She can continue to serve her father, the man of the house. She can continue to do all he needs her to do, because isn’t he, after all helping her out? Given her shrew personality and homely looks, wouldn’t she otherwise be unable to find a man to marry on her own?
The inner Jesus feminist within me seethes. For this is what I, a twenty-first century woman, cannot fathom in the least.
And this is exactly the point.
Shakespeare’s original masterpiece has long been deemed a controversial comedy, gender politics alive and well throughout all five acts – regardless of The Bard’s original intention. Written four hundred years ago, the play was written when women were believed second-class citizens. Culturally induced limitations were placed upon the whole of womankind: women are good for bearing babies and raising children, keeping and tending a home, and other “womanly duties.”
Women were expected to behave in a way quite opposite of Kate Battista’s character, traits of sweetness and beauty their underlying strength. Is there any question that an unfavorable wench such as Katherina (Kate’s character in The Taming of the Shrew) is found curable by the end of the comedic play, having become exactly what society desired her to be in the first place?
Shakespeare begs us ask, can a shrew woman be tamed, her chattering tongue be charmed by the most diligent of men? Can a woman be seen as worth more than an object, a conquering prize between men?
And Tyler does the same.
She weaves together the most implausible of ideas: an arranged marriage in modern-day Baltimore, Maryland with a character that does not and will not ever stand the chance of being harnessed by another person.
It’s easy, upon first glance at the book, to assume Kate tamed when she agrees to marry a man for her father’s sake. But as the plotline continues Tyler does what she does best, creating depth to otherwise unknown characters. [Curious for similarities in her writing, I picked up A Spool of Blue Thread at the library after finishing Vinegar Girl. Backstories to her characters is this storyteller’s specialty.] Kate begins to come to life – her inner shrew not squelched but given room to live alongside a woman who comes to loves and is able to stand up for her wants and needs.
By doing this, Tyler slaps gender roles in the face, and begs us consider what we’d do were we in Kate’s shoes.
Mirroring Shakespeare’s original text, Kate delivers one grand finale of a soliloquy to her sister Bunny. Instead of declaring women but simple creatures, “bound to serve, love, and obey” their lording husbands (TTOTS 5.2.164), the message is flipped.
Not only is it hard being a man, but “…anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it. They think they should seem in charge, in control; they don’t dare show their true feelings. No matter if they’re hurting or desperate or stricken with grief, if they’re heartsick or they’re homesick or some huge dark guilt is hanging over them or they’re about to fail big-time at something…” (229).
Regardless of whether or not you agree with Tyler’s assertion, one thing is true: the reader is challenged to engage with issues of gender stereotypes. Be it against men or women, from a playwright long deceased or a twenty-first century novelist, we’re asked – once again – to show our cards.
So, do it: read Anne Tyler’s latest book and see if you can’t find yourself and your beliefs in Vinegar Girl at some point. Engage with the text, as two unlikely characters fall in love purely for each other’s sake, not because the other was a prize worth conquering, a result of the stars just happening to align in yet another arranged marriage.
Then, after you’ve formed your opinion, let me know whether an old favorite really can be reimagined and turned into something better than the original.
Cara Meredith is a writer and speaker from Oakland, CA. She writes about life, humor, motherhood and faith, but am also passionate about issues of racial justice and reconciliation. She blogs at CaraMeredith.com