The Taming of the Shrew used to be one of my favorite plays by Shakespeare. I loved watching Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor spar in the 1967 film version; I would watch it over and over, memorizing the best insults. Then I got older and I realized what was really happening at the end of the play. I haven’t been able to enjoy the original since, though I did enjoy the retelling in 10 Things I Hate About You*. I can now add Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl to versions that I enjoy.
Like The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew is problematic these days. Its portrayal of women doesn’t work in a feminist era. Katharina’s speech at the end of the play, in which she castigates her sister and another woman for ignoring their husbands’ wishes and lists all the things that men do for their wives, sets my teeth on edge because of the words she employs to describe a husband’s role and expectations:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt. (Act V, Scene II)
And also, like The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew requires significant rewriting to make amends for antiquated prejudices and values. This is what Tyler delivers in Vinegar Girl without sacrificing the essentials of the original plot and characters.
In this retelling, Kate Battista lives at home with her father, Louis, and younger sister, Bunny. She’s a college dropout (she told her botany professor that his explanation of photosynthesis was half-assed) and now works as an assistant at a private elementary school and daycare. She also takes care of her father and sister, as her mother passed away years ago. Kate is not quite the fury that the original Katharina was. This Kate simply lacks tact, not seeing the point of sugar-coating her words.
The first hint that someone is planning marriage for her comes when Louis Battista cons Kate into bringing his forgotten lunch to his lab, where he is studying autoimmune disorders with his lone assistant, Pyotr. Louis ineptly hints that Kate might be a good wife to that assistant. Kate is bewildered at the hinting, though we know what’s really going on when Louis mentions that Pyotr’s visa will expire in a few months. It takes a few days for Kate to figure out her father’s wild plan because she’s just not good at picking up on social cues.
Vinegar Girl is a brief book and the plot whirls along as Kate deals with her father’s blundering machinations and the fact that Pyotr actually seems attracted to her. There are frequent nods to plot points from the play that I enjoyed when I recognized them. That said, I was reserving judgment on this book until I figured out how Tyler was going to deal with Katharina’s speech at the “taming of the shrew.” Would Tyler overturn the original ending? Would she turn this into a romance? To say more would ruin the ending, but I can say that Vinegar Girl is my favorite of the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I’ve read so far, after The Gap of Time and Shylock is My Name.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 June 2016.
* But not Kiss Me, Kate, because musicals are unnatural.