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Writing and design by Melissa Hill, graphic designer.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

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Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.
— Anne Tyler, "Vinegar Girl"

I have to admit two things. Firstly, I have never read The Taming of the Shrew. Secondly, the only other Anne Tyler book I have read is The Accidental Touristand that was for school (many, MANY moons ago) and I don’t remember it at all. Something about an armchair with wings…? So why then did I pick up Vinegar Girl? I’ll admit that a great portion of the temptation was the appeal of the lovely cerulean cover with that big pink flower on it, entwined with that beautiful bold condensed type (not quite Trade Gothic condensed, but oh so close!) Call me shallow if you like, I call myself a graphic designer.

Anyway, I thought that a modern Shakespeare retelling might be a good way to familiarise myself with the story enough that the real thing would seem less intimidating. I have yet to test this theory.

So. All that to establish that I can’t comment on how this book compares to the original material. Obviously, a play about a woman being described as a shrew because she isn’t as compliant and docile as all the men around her would like, and is deemed to be too old and difficult for anyone to want to marry and is then pushed off onto some guy her father finds who then makes it his mission to “tame” (or train!) her is inherently problematic and offensive to many people. Maybe all this misogyny is acceptable in the 16th Century, but how does one bring this story into the modern world in an acceptable fashion?

Given the original material, I think Anne Tyler has done a good job. She’s made some contemporary parallels which are fairly believable — Kate’s father is pushing for her marriage to his Russian lab assistant in order to obtain him a green card — and created a light, breezy story which I imagine is akin to what people would have sought in Shakespeare’s version at the time.

Kate really doesn’t warrant the title of “shrew”, or even “vinegar girl”. She isn’t so much surly or acerbic, as introverted and forthright. She doesn’t see the point in not calling a spade a spade, even if social niceties demand it. She is intelligent, but aimless and has let her loyalty to her family overcome any of her own needs. Tyler tries to explore why a character like this might go along with an arranged marriage and while I found the exploration interesting, I was ultimately disappointed that Kate didn’t just tell everyone to shove it and get on with her own life.

While Vinegar Girl was a fun frolic of a read with some quirky, exasperating characters, I’m inclined to think that The Taming of the Shrew can’t be tamed. Leave it in Elizabethan England.