Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler review: Not close to taming Shakespeare’s classic text
Tyler’s twee updating of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is an ill-judged caper
Anne Tyler: delicate gifts. Photograph: Michael Lionstarr/Four Colman Getty/PA
Future generations may well question the relevance, or simply ignore it. Anne Tyler’s legions of fans will openly sigh, while a random reader happening upon this mess is more likely to abandon ship. By any standards, Vinegar Girl is a limp comedy that tries too hard, with scant results.
For Tyler to risk her delicate gifts – of tiptoeing through the minefield of sentimentality and the relentless glue that is family to, usually, a closing page saved by wisdom and good humour – this is, verily, an ill-judged caper.
Several famous writers have bravely, if inexplicably, accepted the challenge of retelling Shakespeare plays in this commercial and sadly pedestrian Hogarth series. Why? There may be some curiosity value in unleashing Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo on a forthcoming variation on Macbeth, but Tyler is the wrong match for a work as ambivalent and as irritating as The Taming of the Shrew, which Shakespeare is believed to have written between 1590 and 1592.
A far more convincing choice would have been Lionel Shriver. Her We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) even suggests a better title: “We Need to Talk About Kate”. In Shriver’s brusque hands, the bad-tempered antiheroine might have been a serial killer; the benign Tyler opts for a frustrated kindergarten teacher.
But first (or rather, soft, as Shakespeare would have said), how closely did Tyler read the play? Does she even know it? There is little to suggest she does. The Taming of the Shrew is boisterous and farcical, but also ironic and deeply ambivalent, with sufficient subtexts to keep bickering scholars contradicting each other until the end of time.
Shakespeare was flying by the seat of his Elizabethan breeches. Had Kate been tamed, or was she merely mocking her master turned beloved? The play is caustic, disturbing and unsettling; Tyler’s adaptation, about an absent-minded, self- serving scientist and his contrasting daughters, is mildly amusing for those who see humour in a non-native English speaker struggling with standard syntax and pronunciation. But be warned: this non-English speaker, Pyotr, also happens to be a brilliant research scientist whose visa is about to expire.
Tyler’s exasperated Kate is beautiful, unhappy and a bit short-tempered. She’s 29 and still living at home, an unofficial housekeeper for her widower father and her vain, bird-brained younger sister, a high school femme fatale.
In addition to the story amounting to an uninspired situation comedy about a Baltimore household in mini-chaos, there is the robust depiction of the daily routine in Kate’s personal gulag, the Little People’s School, a kindergarten run by the ancient Mrs Darling. A complaint has been made by the parent of a small child given to sucking her fingers. Kate was asked to intervene.
She can’t remember what she said to the concerned father. Mrs Darling reminds her: “You said, ‘Chances are she’ll stop soon enough, once her fingers grow so long that she pokes both her eyes out.’” Chances are a serial killer in need of salvation would have inspired a stronger novel.
Strange that Tyler, the author of Breathing Lessons (1988) and so many good original works, would have written this novel. It is also perplexing that Hogarth has embraced such a tired project. What would the press’s distinguished founders, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, have made of the entire gimmick?
Perhaps Shakespeare, as an entrepreneur with an eye ever to the market, would have approved the venture. Yet it seems unlikely.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent