I am not, and have never been, a fan of The Taming of the Shrew: I think it’s one of the few Shakespearean works to give women short shrift, to fall completely into the misogynistic tangles of the era and to play outright with abuse. I think I’ve read it as many times as I’ve Titus Andronicus, which is to say, I’ve read it in full but once. Which might make me a strange person to read Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler’s effervescent, socially awkward retelling of The Taming of the Shrew for the Hogarth Shakespeare series.
Vinegar Girl is set in a world very different from the source material: it takes place in Baltimore, around the Johns Hopkins campus. There are a lot of STEM people, from our heroine, Kate, to her out of touch father, Dr. Battista, to her father’s postdoc, Pyotr Shcherbakov. Then there’s the very, very teenage Bunny, stepping in for Bianca, and a clueless pothead neighbor who’s “tutoring” her. (Emphasis on the scare quotes, there: the guy’s not tutoring anything.) They’re a motley, and endearing, assortment.
Kate is drawn particularly well, and, indeed, is the most delineated of any of the characters. She’s angry and smart and stagnating, serving as housekeeper and maid to her father and her sister, working a nursery-school job she doesn’t much care about, shambling from day to day. She dropped out of college (or got kicked out) when she told the professor that his explanations were garbage. (She was right, but that didn’t help her any.)
Now, she’s not too sure where she’s bound, or what she’s going to do. In fact, as she tells her sister Bunny towards the end of the novel, “‘Here in this house I’m just part of the furniture, somebody going nowhere, and twenty years from now I’ll be the old-maid daughter still keeping house for her father.’” Kate is, in a word, unbearably trapped, and even the big yard where she gardens isn’t enough to free her.
Enter Pyotr. His visa is about to run out, and Dr. Battista definitely, completely requires him to remain, because he’s totally on the verge of a breakthrough this time, and what’s going to happen if Pyotr leaves? The world will collapse, that’s what! Which is why he’s cooked up the perfect scheme: Kate will marry Pyotr, Pyotr will get a green card, and everything will be hunky-dory. It’s jacked up to the point of absurdity, and Dr. Battista, the self-serving dolt, has no clue. He just knows it’ll be useful for him.
I have some quibbles with Pyotr. He’s from some unidentified Eastern European country, and as someone who grew up in a largely international block, I really wanted to know where. (Russia, maybe? Since Wikipedia says Shcherbakov is a Russian surname?) Some of his linguistic quirks rubbed me the wrong way, which, again, I think comes from having grown up in a multinational neighborhood. I also wanted to know more about why on earth the guy would agree to a sham marriage: just because he wanted to stay in the U.S.? Or (as seems likely, as we get to know him slightly better) because he’s desperate to make a family for himself? Pyotr could, I think, have used some more fleshing out, to go with Kate’s depth and breadth.
The supporting cast is fantastic: hilarious and touching and very real, from Kate’s late mother’s high in the instep family to the pothead neighbor and the teachers and assistants at the nursery school where Kate works. Dr. Battista and Pyotr’s mice, which we never meet, are characters in their own right. (They are not, as Pyotr makes clear, “‘common, downtown mice,’” but a very superior variety of lab mice.) Bunny gets in some fantastic monologues, which are always believably teenage even as they’re intelligent and feminist. (Bunny might be going through more phases than the moon, but she’s got hidden depths.)
Vinegar Girl could probably be a bit longer, and our male lead could do with a bit more character development, but it is a fun, effervescent trip through an entirely remade Taming of the Shrew, one which tackles toxic masculinity and gives an underappreciated woman a chance to shine—and, finally, to become a botanist in her own right. Because this is a world of STEM people, and Kate’s finally on her way.