‘Vinegar Girl’ by Anne Tyler is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series – a project which involves today’s bestselling novelists retelling William Shakespeare’s best known plays. In this modern interpretation of the comedy ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, Kate Battista is a single twenty-nine-year-old nursery teacher living with her absent-minded academic father Louis and her fifteen-year-old sister Bunny. Her father hatches a plan to marry Kate off to his socially awkward eastern European lab assistant Pyotr so he can stay in the United States after his Visa expires.
I have to confess that my knowledge of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is mainly derived from the 1999 film ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ rather than the play itself so for me, ‘Vinegar Girl’ was more like reading a parody of a parody. I think ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ can be difficult to translate convincingly into a 21st-century setting mostly because the modern context of marriage is so different from what it used to be. Whereas marriage was left out of the high school setting of ’10 Things I Hate About You’, Tyler appears to have stuck more rigidly to this aspect of the plot and at times, Kate appears to be unconvincingly compliant to her father’s plan and abandons her suspicions too easily.
Overall, Tyler’s comic instincts are a good match for one of Shakespeare’s lighter plays but ‘Vinegar Girl’ lacks the dark undertones of her best writing. Admittedly, some of the more subtle jokes and allusions in ‘Vinegar Girl’ are likely to have been a bit lost on me, so I would like to read a couple of the other Hogarth Shakespeare titles based on the plays I know best. Having studied both for A Level English Literature, I am particularly interested in Gillian Flynn’s take on ‘Hamlet’ which is out next year and Margaret Atwood’s interpretation of ‘The Tempest’ to be published later this month. Many thanks to Vintage Books for the review copy of ‘Vinegar Girl’.
I’ve had a copy of ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’ on my shelf for ages which is one of Tyler’s earlier novels published in 1982. I’d heard it is among her best work, and now that I’ve read it, I can say that it is probably my favourite of the four novels I have read by her. Set in mid-twentieth century Baltimore, Pearl Tull is suddenly deserted by her travelling salesman husband Beck in 1944 to bring up their three children Cody, Ezra and Jenny on her own and tries to carry on as though nothing has happened. When Pearl is dying in her eighties, the Tulls look back on how Beck’s absence has affected the family over the years but with very different viewpoints of what actually happened. Meanwhile Ezra makes a final attempt to unite the family for a meal at the restaurant he owns.
‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’ is a finely observed portrait of a highly dysfunctional family. Pearl, Cody, Ezra and Jenny have conflicting memories and interpretations of events that have occurred over the years and Tyler unpicks their individual flaws and resentments towards each other with devastating precision. As with her other books, ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’ is likely to appeal to readers who don’t mind a plot which unfurls very slowly but is ultimately rewarding in its quietly powerful conclusion.
Overall, ‘Vinegar Girl’ was more whimsical than its title suggests whereas ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’ implies sentimentality but offers something a lot more complex under the surface. I think the latter is a good place to start for those who are new to Tyler’s work.