The problem with writing a modern American-set version of The Taming of the Shrew is that 10 Things I Hate About You exists. For anyone, myself included, who grew up with that film, with its lightly sprinkled references and liberally changed plot, it is perhaps difficult to read another version without comparing. Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is another book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which I am broadly for (loved The Gap of Time, medium on Shylock Is My Name because I didn’t get along with the writing style). It moves The Taming of the Shrew to America, makes Kate’s father a scientist trying to arrange a marriage in order to keep his beloved research assistant in the country.
Although relevant to the source material, I didn’t feel Kate had enough character. Her sense of wasting her life thus far was apparent, but her textbook vague crush on the one guy in her workplace was pointless. Her eventual husband Pyotr was ambivalently dealt with, a guy trying to get on in a foreign country but also prone to fits of anger. Kate’s younger sister Bunny was the character I found most engaging: warning her sister off the scheme, rebelling against her dad, and constantly referred to as stupid by the other characters. Obviously, she has intelligence they don’t understand, as blunt and logical scientific thought comes up against other ways of thinking.
Kate’s choices weren’t totally nonsensical. She wanted to first help her father, who she mostly looked after, and then get out of his house to try and start a fresh chapter in her life. To follow the play, she has to commit to the wedding even when the need to keep Pyotr in the country is under threat, but it was hard not to root for her to just up and leave, both the wedding and her father’s house. The required ending speech was a bit forced and something that men’s rights’ activists might appreciate: her pity for the difficulties men faced seemed a bit too apparent in other points in the novel, as she realised how much they had to hold in their feelings, for the speech to seem particularly ironic.
Vinegar Girl was, for me, close to the original but without doing anything particularly interesting when updating it. The ending, whilst it gave Kate the freedom and second chance at college that she wanted, left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Going back to college and achieving success required her to marry a guy with anger management issues. Sure, things can be tough for men too, but what Vinegar Girl suggested was that women should bend to them because of this. And there was no Letters to Cleo playing ‘I Want You To Want Me’ at the end, either.