Recommended Reading: Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

Vinegar Girl

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?

IMG_7137In 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.


Recommended Reading: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson**

IMG_5576Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I finished reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time,* a reimagining of Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale. (If you don’t know The Winter’s Tale, think Othello plus pregnancy, a lost and then found child, funny time business, more clowns, and a happy ending.)

Adaptations of Shakespeare, as of anything sui generis, are tricky. Shakespeare’s plots are derivative, pulled from history or earlier plays and tales; what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is the poetry, the depth of characterization, the verbal pyrotechnics of the plays, and these, of course, cannot be adapted in the way that a story can be.

But it’s fun to watch talented people try, isn’t it?

In this case, Ms. Winterson pulls the plot of The Winter’s Tale four hundred years into the future and hundreds of miles west; Sicilia is now a large company in London headed by Leo, and Bohemia is now New Bohemia, a New Orleans-type city in North America, the occasionally home to Leo’s best friend, Xeno. Hermione is now the Parisian singer MiMi, married to Leo and expecting his second child. In a fit of cruel and unfounded jealously, Leo accuses Xeno of sleeping with MiMi (and fathering her child), attempts to kill him, and provokes MiMi’s early labor. When Perdita is born, Leo has her spirited away, which leads indirectly to his young son’s death and MiMi’s disappearance.

Fast forward sixteen years. Perdita has been raised by the kindly Shep and his son Clo, and through a series of improbabilities, comes to fall in love with Xeno’s son, Zel, and learn of her unusual parentage. Next stop: a very awkward family reunion.

Though she generally adheres to the five-act structure of the original play (including two “intervals”), and weights the first half with more psychosexual tension than a bevy of Freudians would know what to do with, Ms. Winterson makes one break that I found dramatically useful: she begins the tale with the scene of Perdita’s accidental abandonment and subsequent rescue by Shep, a grieving widower and musician. This change heightens the tension and gives readers something to look forward to as they read the sordid story of Leo and Xeno; here, as in the play, it’s not at all clear what MiMi saw in Leo in the first place.

The book participates in the oddness of its source material’s plot and characters while retaining its themes: loss, forgiveness, remorse, grief, the startling power of music and imagination. Ms. Winterson’s writing is studded with lovely metaphors (“Milo stood between them like a lighthouse between the rocks and the shipwreck”), images (“he could only look at her through the kaleidoscope cut-outs of the crowd”), and wry observations (“one thing you’ll notice about progress, kid, is that it doesn’t happen to everyone”), self-referential asides, and overt references to the play. Autolycus’s (here, perfectly, a used car dealer) jokes fall flat, but then, I never enjoyed them in the original, so maybe that’s intentional. Nevertheless, The Gap of Time is engaging, a fast read that Shakespeare stalwarts will find thought-provoking and fans of quirky, genre-bending fiction will appreciate.

This is the first in Hogarth’s planned series of Shakespeare adaptations that will roll out more frequently next year (to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death); authors tapped include Margaret Atwood (!), Gillian Flynn, and Jo Nesbo.

What’s your favorite Shakespeare adaptation, Dear Readers? And has anyone read Ms. Winterson’s other work? What should I be on the lookout for?

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

** I want you all to know that I refrained from calling this post “The Bard Awakens.”