Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: Vinegar Girl

After a two-week slump resulted in an innovative new attempt at sorting through a lot of books in a short amount of time, I was left with a new book selection that I hoped would break me out of a reading rut. Well, I was sort of right: I'm still having a bit of trouble sticking to a good schedule, but I ran through this fun and witty novel in less than a day! 

Anne Tyler's Vinegar Girl follows the story of Kate Battista - the eldest daughter of an eccentric academic, and older sister to the flighty, boy-crazy Bunny - who feels unappreciated and out-of-place in the world around her. Her jagged edges and snappy tendencies too much for her constricting life, she finds herself faced with a crazy scheme from her father, to save his lab assistant, Pyotr, from deportation. This bestselling adaptation of the classic Shakespearean comedy The Taming of the Shrew focuses on family, and how much of yourself you're willing to give up to fit in. 

I've been following the installments in the Hogarth Shakespeare collection - modern day adaptations of the Bard's classic tales, by some of the best contemporary authors - with quite a bit of excitement, but this was the first novel in the series that I've actually been able to pick up. It's no surprise that my first instinct was to go for the one that was based on The Taming of the Shrew... while it's not one of my favorite of the plays, it has spawned some of my absolute favorite adaptations, like one of my favorite musicals of all time, Kiss Me Kate, and the classic teen movie (the adoration for which I feel is matched by the love I feel for my high school, where the movie was filmed) 10 Things I Hate About You

Despite my general dislike of the original source material, this retelling immediately made me want to revisit the play, in order to get a better handle on a good comparison. The book itself was incredibly enjoyable, lighthearted, and clever, which aren't exactly things that I remember the original to be. 

In particular, one of my favorite updates was to the novel's main character: due to its contemporary status, feminists get an upgrade in Kate, from the obdurate-turned-obedient Katherine. She is maintained as an autonomous figure with plenty of self-direction and ambition, which would please people like me, who aren't such fans of the lack of respect for those things in TTotS. Pyotr's husband-figure status has been itself tamed from the overbearing antics of Petruchio, and her father's obliviously meddlesome ways always run secondhand to Kate's own feelings. Her dependence on her father and family life is portrayed in such a way that respects the original material as well as the integrity of the character. 

If you haven't guessed, she was also my favorite character, as she is in most of such adaptations. (No, I do not know what that probably says about me.) 

The rest of the family was an interesting bunch, too, whose modern-day updates meshed fairly well with the defining characteristics of their original personas. The family still felt outlandish and mismatched without appearing at all unrealistic or unlikely, maintaining the comedy of family dynamics without deliberately ostracizing any of its members. You saw each of their individuality and incongruities, but still understood how they fit together into one family unit. 
Similarly for the rest of the novel, characterizations were innovative and fresh, making new use of old characters to progress the plot in a meaningful way, while still staying fairly true to the intentions of the old work. 

Like I said before, this novel was the winner in my round of speed dating a stack of books, and I'm glad that I read it first. It was quick, sweet, and I finished it in about a day, with a few lazy breaks in between bouts of reading. For someone trying to get back into the swing of reading, maybe at the start of a vacation, or if you don't get a lot of reading time on your hands, this might just be the perfect interim or transitional read. 

It really did end up reminding me a lot of Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible, and I think that fans of one would definitely appreciate the other! In fact, the appeal of this book strikes broad: I feel like whether you're a fan of Shakespeare or not - and particularly, a fan of Taming of the Shrew or not - you might still like this book. And if you don't? Well, it's a quick read. 

Final Verdict: Short and very sweet, this retelling makes me want to revisit the Shakespearean source material. Enjoyable and lighthearted, it would probably be a fun read for both fans of the Bard as well as those unfamiliar with his work, especially fans of feisty female main characters. 

Have you read any of the Hogarth Shakespeare collection? What is your favorite Shakespearean adaptation? Let me know, in the comments below!

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