If I Had to Choose a Re-imagining of “The Taming of the Shrew” from the Past Year: a Review of Anne Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl”

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Despite how many times Shakespeare’s plays have been retold, it still seems like it can be very difficult to do so with much success.

I’m going to be honest, Kate Battista? Not very much of a shrew. This might be a generational thing; if you’re around my age, your first experience of the Shakespeare play not have even been the play itself, but the movie, “10 Things I Hate About You,” starring Julia Stiles and the late Heath Ledger. As such, there’s already a very pre-established adaptation of the play into a modern story, and it can be difficult when approaching any other adaptations not to compare the two, especially if your main focus is to review one and not the other.

So I’ll shift gears back to “Vinegar Girl” and Kate Battista. The pros of this particular novel include the fact that it’s easily digestible. I was able to get through the 237 pages (although that’s something I want to talk about later) within about an hour and a half, collectively. If you’re going down to the beach and you want to have something to read while you’re baking and slowly drifting off, this might be a good pick. It is not a challenging read. In fact, except for a few syntax inversions that could slow you down if you’re paying enough attention to catch them (and not bad inversions, but ones that are a distinct style choice and should be paid attention to), the novel is kind of brain numbing.

I don’t mean to say that as a bad thing. It didn’t take long to settle into the reading, and I also didn’t feel inclined to stop once I started, but I don’t think there’s a lot of substance here, which is disappointing. The plot revolves around a marriage of convenience that would allow Kate’s father to keep his foreign lab assistant, the attractive Russian Pyotr (whose name is frequently mispronounced by the characters as Pyoder), as long as it takes to get their research completed. Today in America, there is very much an anxiety for immigrants to be able to make sure their visas aren’t expiring, and that, if they’re about to expire, that they have some way to make their stay in the U.S. more permanent. That’s a very real situation that many people living in America are facing right now, and for the most part, there is no comedy in it. If you want to look at it from that perspective, and the way Kate’s father remarks how unusual it was for Pyotr to have been able to get his visa–one that permitted him to come to the United States based on his remarkable abilities as a scientist–then you could argue that well, there are good immigrants who have something to offer and are worth keeping, and that maybe there are ones who…aren’t. For most immigrants, I would probably say that this isn’t really the kind of thing to form a rom-com around.

There are other things too, that kind of drop out of the picture, and make me wonder what the point was of including them if you’re not going to spend more time on them. What’s the point of showing Kate working at the preschool if you’re only doing it to prove she has a job when it ultimately goes nowhere. The only thing that did end up mattering was a character we only saw in passing and never actually got to talk to through Kate. She saw him, but the only conversations he had were when she wasn’t in the room. Her family is lovable, but besides the explanation provided, there’s no actual evidence that Kate’s father doesn’t get along with her aunt, Thelma, who seems like a reasonably good person after all. Parts of the story don’t necessarily fit together.

As another thing, there’s the actual play that the novel is based on, and the way the characters are supposed to fit in the Shakespearean roles. To be honest, I don’t find Kate particularly shrewish. Sometimes she acts like a 20-year-old when she’s actually approaching 30, and she’s the “cool teacher assistant” at the preschool that all the four-year-olds love because she says things like how pasta smells like wet dog. That’s just being immature, not necessarily someone nobody would ever want to marry (and trust me, I know plenty of people like Kate who have been married for years and have children of their own at this point).

The novel ends with an epilogue, which I in general am opposed to, and to be honest, wasn’t necessary. I know sometimes writers feel the need to tell us what their characters are doing with the rest of their lives, but to be frank? I usually would prefer to wonder about it than to have any hard answers.

I said I’d go back to the page numbering, so I will. Within a few minutes of reading, I was already on page 11, which I thought was really strange–I’m a quick reader, but not that quick–and when I looked, it appeared that they had counted all of the front matter in the total page count. This might not seem like a big deal, and maybe it’s not, since it seems like a lot of Penguin/Random House Books are doing this now. I checked it against “These Heroic, Happy Dead,” and that book did the same thing, but when I looked at my (admittedly, decades old) copy of “A Separate Peace,” the first numbered page was the first page of the story, not the first page of the book (which in other books, too, would be marked as page i, or page ii, if that was the second literal page, and so on). So this book isn’t actually 237 pages of text.

Another issue I had with the formatting of the book is that it has a lot of margin space, but the text on the page doesn’t fit well. The box is too small, and frequently my line of reading would be broken by having a word go onto the next line. Once in a while is fine, since kerning even with a machine can be really difficult to get perfect, but it happened four times in the first paragraph. That’s super nitpicky of me, and I know it, but it was something I also had to pay attention to as an editor, and making sure a line of prose is uninterrupted by a hyphen seems like a reasonable thing to me, especially since the amount of space the page had would have been able to accommodate it. I was taught that, if breaking up words, never do it unless absolutely necessary. When you read something like that and it happens repeatedly, it can feel like stepping over rocks.

I also noticed a few issues in proofing. Nothing really major, but enough that I noticed it, and then, when I looked at the fact that the book’s cover price is $25, noticed it even more. It’s not like a $1.50 mass market paperback from the 1980’s. This is a hardcover book, and if you’re charging more than $20 for a book that has less than 237 pages of content, I would hope that content is as close to error-free as possible.

The last thing I want to touch on is that there is a section of texting in the book, and it’s pretty clumsy to read. We live in a world where it isn’t difficult to set type opposing each other like an actual text conversation looks like. You don’t have to rely on a paragraph break and second-line indent anymore, and if you’re doing that, at least give some indication of who’s sending what text, since there are a lot of people who will send several texts to one person without pausing for a response. If you’re dozing off while reading the book, you might find yourself in a position where you have to go back and reread those sections because it’s not immediately clear who is doing the texting.

I do need to include an FTC disclaimer that I did not buy this book, and that I received it from Blogging for Books for this review. That said, I don’t think I would have spent the money on it in the first place, even if I do like Shakespeare.

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Author: jillboger

Part time writer. Editor-in-Chief for the Bridge volume 13, former EIC for The Odyssey at BSU. My glasses protect my secret identity.

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