This is my review of Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold by Anne Tyler.
In this modern take on Shakepeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”, having been thrown out of university for insulting her professor, spiky, forthright Kate Battista has spent the past decade in a dead-end job as preschool assistant, whilst trying to act as a mother-substitute for her flirty, far from dumb blonde, adolescent sister Bunny, and keeping house for her impractical academic and frankly control-freak father. When his selfishness leads him to overstep the mark, by trying to manipulate Kate into marrying his brilliant East European research assistant Pyotr, so that he can stay in the States after his visa has run out, Kate understandably rebels.
This is the basis of an often very funny, shrewdly observed novel, superficially lightweight with an ending sewn up a little too neatly for my taste, yet suggesting darker currents beneath the surface. Even minor characters are given some depth, with a mixture of good points and human failings. I must have enjoyed the book since I sat up to 2 a.m to finish it in one sitting, but had a few reservations, which I suppose at least have the merit of provoking discussion.
Is it, for instance, likely, that a strong-minded, independent young woman with the intellect to study science at university would have put up for so long with the constrained world of the Little People’s School, or have avoided being sacked long ago for her lack of “tact, restraint and diplomacy”? By the same token, would she have accepted for so long her father’s rules about cooking meat mash to last a week and not emptying dishwashers in the interest of his theories on health and efficiency? Is her outspokenness not so much a sign of independence, but rather the result of a lack of socialisation into “social norms”, owing to a depressed, prematurely deceased mother (driven to despair by her incompatible husband?) and an often absent father with inadequate parenting skills?
A minor point is that Kate’s four-year-old charges seem rather advanced for their age, but since Anne Tyler has clearly observed children very closely, perhaps she has struck the right note.
When Kate suggests at one point that men are at a disadvantage compared to women because “they think they should be in charge, in control; they don’t dare show their feelings” this reminds me of the “behind every successful man there’s a strong woman” unfeminist twisting of arguments with which I was brought up in the pre-equality past. Kate’s argument that a woman should let a man into her more “empathic country” to give them both space to be themselves, sounds somewhat patronising and smacks of self-justification. Does Anne Tyler mean us to accept this at face value, or to take it with a pinch of cynicism? Still, I believe that Shakespeare’s Kate was initially simply too stroppy to make a “good wife”, and never meant to be a feminist, as we understand the term, at all.