Vinegar Girl is our first ever book club pick and if you’re reading this it means you’re part of a forever-VIP group known as the first ever book club subscribers for Rare Birds. I am very excited to have you here.
So, let’s talk about the book.
Now, before we dive in, we need to have a little discussion about the play that inspired it, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.
Vinegar Girl was essentially commissioned as part of an extended marketing exercise to reimagine Shakespeare’s works to mark the 400th anniversary of his death. If you’re vaguely a fan of the Bard of Avon, it’s a series worth your time – Margaret Atwood recently published her take on the Tempest (called Hagseed) and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame is currently working on her retelling of Hamlet.
Now, like 10 Things I Hate About You, Vinegar Girl is a pretty charming take on a comedy that people mostly agree is pretty brutal.
The play starts out with a weird framing device that we’re going to completely ignore for the purposes of this review and tells the story of Kate and her sister Bianca, both daughters to the Baptista Minola, who is a lord in a place called Padua.
In a nutshell, Bianca is beautiful and popular, and Kate is the complete opposite. Bianca can’t get married until Kate does, and quite a few men are interested in marrying Bianca, so the scheming begins.
Along comes Petruchio, who decides he’s up for marrying Kate because he a) wants her dowry and b) he likes a challenge. He wins her over by pretending all the mean things she says are lovely – Kate decides he’s probably the only man who can keep up with her and the two of them get hitched.
Where the play takes a bit of a turn for the worst is after the wedding – Petruchio essentially takes her off to his country home and subjects her to all sorts of weird tyranny to transform her from a shrew into an acceptable wife.
For most readers, even making allowances for things being different back then there’s just too much misogyny at work here for this to truly be a feel-good happy-ending kind of piece, so it should surprise no one that Vinegar Girl stops at the wedding rather than wade into such tricky territory.
So the book begins and we meet Kate, who is trying not to get herself fired from a nursery school job she doesn’t seem to want anyway. Her dad is acting a little strangely and suddenly his formerly-unknown lab assistant starts popping up all over the place. We soon find out why.
What I loved about this book how Kate likes Pyotr in spite of herself. She sets out to hate him – and there is truly no reason why they should hit it off – yet oddly finds that he’s the only person in her life that seems to pay attention long enough to understand her.
They get engaged, and surprisingly – married. Am I the only person who was surprised the wedding actually went through? And in the end it was one of my favourite scenes in the book; Kate doesn’t want to get married but finds herself oddly let down when he doesn’t show.
From the outside, Kate pretends not to care – and the writer does a really great job of describing the weird swing from hope to disillusionment and then back again that Kate feels before, during and just after the wedding.
The reason this book made the cut for me is because the point in life where Kate finds herself felt very familiar. Most of us know what it’s like to feel stuck – not happy, but not specifically miserable either.
At the start of the book Kate’s whole life is stalling; she doesn’t like what she has but doesn’t know what she wants either. Pyotr appears, and though it’s ridiculous to marry a stranger, it’s also an exit strategy – finally, something is going to change for her.
As she gradually starts falling in love with Pytor the way she starts to see him is also very touching. In her eyes he slowly transforms from an oddball into someone who feels just as lonely, scared and lost as she does at times.
The whole thing is handled very gently; it manages to be touching without feeling overly sappy or sentimental. I made it through the whole book without ever really rolling my eyes – which, if you love a rom com as much as I do, is rare.
Now, that’s more than enough from me – I want to hear your thoughts. This book club is a forum for us to chat about whatever we want, so don’t be shy. If you’re not sure what to say, let’s start simple: how did you feel about the ending?