Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

vinegar girlVinegar Girl is Anne Tyler’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which several award-winning novelists have taken on the task of re-creating Shakespeare’s stories and characters in the form of contemporary novels. Tyler has admitted she’s an odd choice for this, as she is not a dedicated Shakespearean: she loves the language but thinks most of his plots are ridiculous — which, when you break them down, they often are. Why, then, a project that strips away Shakespeare’s language and asks writers to retell the often-weak plots? I’d suggest it works, when it does work (Vinegar Girl is the only one of the Hogarth Shakespeares I’ve read so far, though I’ve heard good things about others) because of character. Shakespeare created unforgettable characters, even when his (usually borrowed) plots force them into doing silly things. And one of those memorable is Katherina, or Kate, the heroine of The Taming of the Shrew, who in this novel becomes Tyler’s vinegar girl.

If you struggle with Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew is one of the most frustrating of the plays. Kate is a spunky, spirited heroine, a woman determined not to fit into the narrow mold of acceptable female behavior. The play contains scenes between Katherine and her suitor, then husband, Petruchio, that (long before Elizabeth Bennett met Mr. Darcy) laid the groundwork for every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen: two high-spirited, sharp-tongued people engage in verbal one-up-man-ship while not even realizing they’re falling in love. (Admittedly, Shakespeare himself did this even better with Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, but they aren’t supposed to be the main characters of the play).

However, there’s far darker stuff going on in Taming: the arrogant Petruchio has married the titular shrew Katherina basically to win a bet, and he “tames” her using methods that are, frankly, abusive. At the end of the play Kate emerges tamed, lecturing her sister (and, my extension, women in the audience) about the importance of respecting your man. It’s inevitable that a modern novelist would want to re-examine those plot lines a little.

Some things about Vinegar Girl work very well. Tyler’s Kate Battista is an engaging character — not particularly shrewish, perhaps, but outspoken and forthright with no particular interest in charming anyone. Arranged marriages are few and far between in twenty-first century America, but Kate’s scientist father begs her to enter into one for one of the very few reasons people still do: to prevent his valuable research assistant from being deported. Kate’s reasons for agreeing to the green card marriage are tangled and not always completely believable, but a nice little love story does emerge from the tangle.

The place where I felt the story fell down a little was with the character of Pyotr, the research assistant Kate marries. He’s no Petruchio — in fact it’s hard to tell what he is. I think one shortcoming here is that in order to make the “immigration marriage” story work, Tyler had to make Pyotr a non-native English speaker, which means that his interactions with Kate are hardly characterized by sparkling repartee. And since witty wordplay is the only thing that makes a Katherine-Petruchio type relationship at all worth rooting for, its loss here handicaps the romance. Pyotr is ultimately a likeable character, though he takes awhile to grow on both Kate and the reader, but I didn’t have the feeling that he was really a worthy sparring partner for a modern-day shrew.

In the end I enjoyed the novel for what it was — a very gifted novelist’s attempt to reimagine an old story in a modern setting — but I wasn’t entirely sure it had succeeded. If anyone could make this work, it probably would have been Anne Tyler — which means it likely couldn’t work, not completely. But it was still interesting and engaging to watch her make the attempt.

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