Shakespeare redux

A review of Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Reworking Shakespeare for contemporary times is nothing new: one need only look at films like 10 Things I Hate About You teen angst or Kurosawa’s feudal Japan-set Throne of Blood (retellings of The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth, respectively). It is perhaps a little less common to retell his stories in novel form. Hogarth Press has launched an intriguing new series that enlists some notable literary and popular authors to do their best with the Bard’s plots. Anne Tyler takes on the challenge of The Taming of the Shrew, one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s comedies and especially thorny one, with her novel Vinegar Girl. Most everyone knows the plot: a father has two daughters, one of which, Bianca, is ‘the hot one’ that suitors can’t stop drooling over, and the elder Kate, who is difficult and contrary to the extreme. Trouble is, Kate must marry before her father will even consider letting Bianca get hitched. The swaggering Petruccio steps in, takes up the challenge and through treachery, cajoling, and various other methods which might rankle modern audiences, breaks Kate into an obedient, docile wife—maybe. It all depends on the perspective, which makes Shrew such a juicy opportunity for a modern author to adapt.

Tyler recasts Kate as Kate Battista, a preschool aide who is always close to losing her job--she tells her charges her real opinions with a frank manner, a trait that wins her kids’ hearts, but their parents’ ire. She runs her scientist father’s household using odd concoctions he has created for greatest efficiency (two words:  meat mash). Bianca is transformed into Bunny, self-absorbed and deep in the throes of teenage rebellion. Kate doesn’t see much change in her future—she had been interested in pursuing her passion in botany—but the demands of caring for the absent-minded Dr. Battista ended that hope. When Dr. Battista is faced with the loss of his vital lab assistant, he again leans on Kate. She only needs to marry the taciturn Pyotr to avoid his deportation, make it look like a legit marriage and carry on as before. This time, Kate knows he has gone too far and refuses to play along. But can agreeing to sham marriage give her the spark that she’s needed in her life? 

Tyler centers her retelling on Kate, making Pyotr/Petruccio a somewhat two-dimensional afterthought. Whereas in the play the power balance rests between Kate and Petruccio, Tyler puts much of the argument between Kate and her self-conception. It could be a weighty drag on the plot, but Tyler plays up the comedic aspects to slap-stick levels, tempered with Kate’s acerbic commentary and a cast of characters that grows ever more ludicrous. It’s a bit Marx brothers do romantic comedy. Vinegar Girl is a fast read, good for a summer evening or for a car ride to Spring Green. Through it all, the question remains: if Kate weds her Pyotr/Petruccio, has she been broken—or freed? Tyler has her answer, and whether it’s true to the play will make a spirited subject of debate.