Not So Tame? Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl

Tyler, Anne. Vinegar Girl: William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shew Retold.  Hogarth Shakespeare-Vintage. 2016.

What has always interested me most about The Taming of the Shrew is that it is a play within a play, a fact that I can’t help but think has a major effect on how we are meant to respond to the story of Katherine and Petruchio. However, that discussion must await another day.

Tyler’s novel begins with Kate, almost thirty, avid gardener, university drop-out, surrogate mother to her much younger sister, Bunny, housekeeper to her widowed father, a professor at Johns Hopkins, and although supposedly hating small children is employed in a pre-school. Professor Battista is somewhat eccentric in his ideas about family life and family management insisting that his family subsist on a diet of meat mash that is reheated every day.

Afraid he will lose his research assistant, Pyotr, because Pyotr’s visa is about expire, Professor Battista wants Kate to ensure Pyotr’s immigration status through marriage. While Kate is trying to navigate her way through this tangle, she is also faced with trying to ensure Bunny is keeping up with her schoolwork and not getting too involved with the next-door neighbour’s son Eddie Vince, who smokes “suspiciously tiny cigarettes” (48) and has already persuaded Bunny to espouse vegetarianism.

Given that we are told by the subtitle what Vinegar Girl is about, the major events of the novel are not excessively surprising. Tyler deviates from her model somewhat by including an epilogue that I found not unsatisfactory.

Is this a worthwhile book? One of my colleagues described it as “light.” It is a light book, but I would argue it is light in the way a beautifully made soufflé is light. It has substance; it leaves the reader feeling satisfied. Yes, the action of the novel verges on the farcical at times, but Tyler is control. She creates characters who even as they are somewhat eccentric are very sympathetic. We like them; well, perhaps Eddie Vince is a bit of a challenge but we forgive him. We recognize the world of a family, a family still suffering from the death of a wife and mother many years ago. We recognize loneliness, longing, and unfulfilled desires as much as we recognize the embarrassing quirks of family members.

I would argue that Tyler’s novel optimistically suggests that self-fulfillment, happiness and love are within our grasp even where we might not expect to find them.



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