Vinegar Girl

By Anne Tyler

Hogarth Press

Vinegar Girl is a retelling of a Shakespearean play by a 21st-century novel­ist. The play in question is The Taming of the Shrew; the novelist is Anne Tyler. It’s an intriguing match. One of America’s deft­est dissectors of relationships against one of the Bard’s most controversial works: is Shrew a subversive feminist fable or a brash sexist romp? Is its heroine, the witty, uncompromi­sing Kate, brought to heel by impetuous Petruchio, or does she simply find her match?

Tyler’s Kate is Kate Battista, a smart, pre-school teacher who insults colleagues, cares impatiently for her erratic father (a researcher at a university) and endures her silly teenage sister, Bunny. The romantic plot is propelled by a marriage of convenience. Kate’s father has a brilliant assistant, Pyoder “Pyotr” Cherbakov, who is about to be deported. The quickest way out of the bind is marriage to a reluctant Kate. Can the pair genuinely fall in love? Pyotr is a wonderful creation, mixing intelligence, flirta­tion, boorishness and odd Russian proverbs: “Work when divided into segments is shorter total period of time than work when it is all together one unit.” What elevates him is his untapped vulnerability (he’s an orphan), which Kate duly taps into. Vinegar Girl is very funny (lots of nice business about mice) and utterly captivating. You might even forget the original.

Also reviewed by James Kidd: Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread