If I were a distinguished novelist offered a choice of Shakespeare’s plays to adapt into a novel, The Taming of the Shrew would not be at the top of my list. First, there’ve been enough memorable film adaptations (the Taylor/Burton version, Kiss Me Kate, 10 Things I Hate About You) that I’d be worried about finding some elbow room. Then there’s the play itself—rough around the edges with an odd framing device. And good lord, the misogyny! Could it be tamed? Should it?
In Vinegar Girl*, Anne Tyler transforms Shakespeare’s rollicking, occasionally revolting play into a genteel romantic comedy that would make a surprising good vehicle for, say, Sandra Bullock about fifteen years ago. Or Mila Kunis, come to think of it.
Kate Battista is twenty-nine. She lives with her father, an odd but brilliant researcher of autoimmune disorders, and her fifteen-year-old sister Bunny, an occasionally perceptive standard-issue teenage narcissist (going through a vegetarian phase, oy). Kate works at a preschool, where her total honesty makes her a favorite with the four-year-olds she minds, but not with the staff or the parents. She’s quite intelligent and talented with plants, but after an altercation with a botany professor (she said “his explanation of photosynthesis was ‘half-assed'”), she was essentially expelled from college. Since Bianca and her father needed Kate’s help at home—her mother having died, as mothers in these sorts of stories ought to do, it always seems—she moved back in, and now she drifts in place, like slightly surly kelp.
Though she generally accepts her father’s eccentricities—the nutrient-dense mash that makes up almost all their family dinners is unforgettable—Kate finds his sudden desire and pathetic attempts to bring her in close proximity to his Russian assistant, Pyotr, rather annoying. And once she realizes what the pair are after—a green card—amusement turns to alarm.
Ms. Tyler nixes the original’s subplot involving Bunny’s many suitors (there’s just one, an erstwhile Spanish tutor); instead, the focus is almost entirely on Kate. What does she expect of herself, and what does her family expect of her? The book asks us: What do we expect from women as caretakers? Why do we treat single women differently from married women? What does it take to get out of a years-long rut?
As such, I think Vinegar Girl treats the open question of The Taming of the Shrew (how ought men and women live in relation to each other, with respect to marriage?) as settled; Ms. Tyler (and I sincerely hope, the rest of us) are firmly in favor of abuse-free egalitarian relationships in which spouses support each other.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of drama before the nuptials, or that Kate and Pyotr don’t perplex each other, though. They have quite a time muddling through each other’s defenses and ingrained habits; it’s a treat to watch them spar with each other. Particularly funny are Pyotr’s adages, which never quite work in translation (“Work when it is divided into segments is shorter total period of time than work when it is all together in one unit.”) and his spot-on assessments of American speech patterns.
Vinegar Girl is the second Hogarth Shakespeare adaptation I’ve read. The first was Jeannette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale, The Gap of Time, and I love how different the two novelizations are, how remarkably distinct in approach. Vinegar Girl is an enjoyable, light comedy that asks serious questions. Recommended.
Have you read any Shakespeare adaptations lately? And what’s your favorite Anne Tyler novel?
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.