Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is part of Vintage Hogarth Shakespeare 400th anniversary series, which sees modern writers reinterpreting Shakespeare. Generally, I’m not a fan of Shakespeare finding the desperation to name him the greatest writer ever deeply tedious with an unpleasant under current of nationalism, racism, misogyny and classism. I only came across the series when I read Jeannette Winterson’s retelling of a Winter’s Tale (Gap of Time), which is excellent. I had never read Tyler, but had high hopes based on this description:
“Kate Battista feels stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but their parents don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner.
Dr. Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr, all would be lost.
When Dr. Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to bring her around?”
It was a complete let-down.
Vinegar Girl a competent book and rather funny in places, but it suffers from the boring sexism that even Shakespeare questioned occasionally. Having Kate pushed into a green card marriage so her father (an academic with tenure) can keep his foreign exchange student in the US is clever. Keeping the ending in line with the original is less so, particularly when we’re meant to feel that Kate’s father truly loves his girls – despite working 7 days a week in his lab and leaving Kate responsible for everything from making dinner, caring for her younger sister and doing his tax returns. He has no idea about the lives of his daughters but somehow Kate’s meant to give up even more of her life to placate her father’s desires and questionable research. He even has a sulky tantrum when his eldest daughter moves out to make her green card marriage more realistic for Immigration services. As fathers go, Kate’s is useless and selfish.
Pyort seems a decent guy, but marrying the only man she actually knows is dull. Growing up isolated with a mentally ill mother and father more concerned with his mice than his daughters (and who was utterly uninterested in their mother’s illness) isn’t healthy. But we’re meant to believe the marriage is a love match in the end because they have a child and Kate becomes a botanist. ?This is without the ending which is all about how bad men’s lives are – that speech wouldn’t go amiss at an MRA rally.
Frankly, 10 Things I hate about you was a far more successful adaptation – at least the daughters were more realistic and their father genuinely cared for them (despite being a tool).
I’ve never read Anne Tyler before and this book isn’t making me want to rush out to read more.