Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold, by Anne Tyler, Hogarth Shakespeare, 240 pp, ISBN: 978-1781090183
To coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, The Hogarth Press asked a number of well-known novelists to reimagine and recreate a Shakespeare play of their choice as a novel for a modern audience. Authors included Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson and Anne Tyler, who responded with a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.
Fans of Tyler’s twenty books of family and marriage, nearly all set in Baltimore, Maryland where the author has lived since 1967, will be delighted, as rumour had it that A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) was to be her last novel. In one of her rare public interviews Tyler said she always wanted to write an Anna Karenina, but her books always turned out the same. “I start every book thinking this one will be different and it’s not. I have my limitations. I feel as if I will never be Tolstoy.” Yet the famous opening line of Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, has echoes in Tyler’s books which are always about the dynamics of family and marriage. Most of her books are set in the Baltimore suburb of Roland Park where Tyler lives, a place quite distinct from the area of Baltimore depicted in the The Wire.
Kate Battista (Katherina Baptista) the twenty-nine-year-old eldest daughter of Lewis Baptista, is stuck looking after her father, an eccentric, widowed scientist with very important matters on his mind. He has spent his life trying to find a single, unified key to autoimmune disease, experimenting on his precious laboratory mice. His wife became depressed following the birth of their first child and spent the first fourteen years of Kate’s life in and out of rest homes. She died after giving birth to the Bianca of the novel ‑ blonde, bouncy, bubbly Bunny – leaving Kate to run the house on her own, dropping out or being dropped out of college early. Now she works as an assistant to a teacher in a preschool, though she claims to hate children. Kate does everything for everyone, looking after her fifteen-year-old sister, cooking, doing laundry and cleaning for the family of three. Gardening is about the only activity that soothes her spirits. Compared to the lovely Bunny (Bianca), Kate has always felt “too tall, too outspoken, too brassy”:
Kate is taller than most men and she
felt too big and too gangling. She longed all at once to be softer, daintier, more ladylike and she was embarrassed by her own gracelessness.She wished she had had a mother … one who had taught her how to get along in the world better.
Kate is literally a motherless child. While Bunny is apparently like her mother, blonde and demure, Kate is not in the least so. She has stopped cutting her long black hair because “she hated the Chatty Cathy act” and keeps disappointing her beautician with her inability to talk about boyfriends, husbands, mother-in-laws, roommates, jealous girlfriends, feuds and misunderstandings and romance and divorces.
Kate is blunt and forthright, her headmistress is forever chiding her for her handling of the preschool parents and threatening her with probation. “[Y]ou would need to develop some social skills. Some tact, some restraint, some diplomacy.” The children, however, seem quite taken with her. None of these qualities come close to the audacious, sharp-tongued Katherina depicted in Shakespeare’s famous play.
Kate is shocked when her father, who claims he is coming close to a breakthrough, in his research (though this is doubtful after twenty years) wants her to marry his Russian research assistant Pyotr Scherbakov so that he can obtain a green card and stay in the country. It seems that all have given up on Kate, at twenty-nine, ever finding a husband of her own, and the father sees this as an excellent plan. Kate tells her father that his proposal is tantamount to trafficking or selling her as chattel. The father envisages that the couple will move into the Battista household where Kate can continue her domestic duties (a sexual relationship is not anticipated) and in time they can go their separate ways. The novel avoids the sexual innuendo and word play of the source, for Tyler’s Kate is prim and inexperienced.
We are a long way from the father of The Taming of the Shrew, where Baptista Minola, a wealthy citizen of Padua, is trying to marry off Katherina in order to allow his younger daughter to marry one of her many suitors (Bunny is only fifteen!). Lucentio, suitor to Bianca in the Shakespeare play, pretends to be a Latin tutor to woo her. In the novel Bunny acquires a Spanish tutor, Edward Mintz, as a would-be love interest, but he is mainly a plot device for the comic finale.
The father’s attempts to bring Kate and Pyotr together are obvious and comic. Louis is forever taking photos with a mobile phone camera that he can’t operate, to prove to immigration that they are a real couple when the time comes. Louis tries to convince Pyotr that Kate is very domestic, despite her very limited cooking skills. The family has a meat mash, that is simply dried beans, vegetables and potatoes and a small bit of beef, reheated and reserved every night. When Bunny decides to become a vegetarian (not wanting to eat anything with a face) Kate invents a “meatless, meat mash”. Meals always play a major role in Tyler’s work, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant being one of the best examples. Her books are full of families sitting down for Thanksgiving meals or not finishing meals together. Mealtimes are often at the heart of her varied depictions of family life.
Pyotr, the Russian assistant, is an odd Petruchio. Only briefly after their wedding does he show any sign of trying to control or tame Kate. He is an outsider and Tyler as a master of dialogue makes much comic use of his attempts at learning English, or American, idioms. All of Tyler’s novels are character-driven, but she is a genius at dialogue, which makes her work ripe for film adaptation. Her writing room in her Baltimore home is on the second floor as she “likes to keep the windows open to hear ordinary life outside”, she told The Guardian. Tyler puts observations and overheard phrases in a special box and they turn up unexpectedly in her characters’ mouths.
Despite Pyotr calling Kate “un bitcha” and a shrew during their courtship, these are never serious claims, being more terms of endearment. Pyotr knows that the favoured Bunny is not as sweet as people think: In my country, they have proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person for sugar has no nutrition.’ Kate responds: “Well in my country they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Pyotr: “But why would you want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”
Somehow Kate finds herself agreeing to the marriage to help her father, but as she gets to know Pyotr better, she “felt a kind of rearrangement taking place in her mind ‑ a little adjustment of vision”. Pyotr seems to be the first person to take an interest in what she might have done before she dropped out of college ‑ become a botanist perhaps. Once Kate agrees to the “green card wedding” her delighted father proposes a toast and, loosened by wine, talks about her mother, whom she barely remembers. For the first time we see an emotional, repressed side to Louis.
Pyotr is clearly pleased with his bride-to-be and calls her “Kate, oh my comical Kate oh Katya mine”. He thinks she is independent “you have the hair that avoids beauty parlors and you resemble dancer”.
Once engaged she finds she gains a new status in her school, she seems to matter. Perhaps the marriage is a chance to turn her life around: “She had used this life up And after Pyotr got his green card she was not going to move back home … Maybe she would have her degree by then; maybe she’d have a new job.” Getting a life of her own becomes the arc of the book
Vinegar Girl differs from other Tyler novels in that there are fewer family members involved, though a few well-drawn aunts and uncles are thrown in for the wedding reception. The household has similarities to that in Tyler’s acclaimed The Accidental Tourist. The Battista family shares some of the compulsive disorder (OCD) of the Leary family, who alphabetise their food cans in the kitchen cupboards. (Tyler is a domestic person who doesn’t find alphabetising her cans that unusual.) Louis has a grocery list computer-generated according to the order of the goods in the supermarket aisles. All Kate had to do every week is cross off what isn’t needed. Louis is a man with systems and plans. His daughter is still searching for her plan.
The parallels between Vinegar Girl and the The Taming of the Shrew are never strained. There are the obvious similarities of names, and themes of costume: just as Petruchio appears in unsuitable wedding clothes in The Taming of the Shrew, so Pyotr arrives dishevelled for his ceremony. And both arrive late. Tyler simplifies the Shakespearean cast of characters and cuts out the play within the play and induction scene. After the wedding Pyotr opens up to Kate, giving her, after her father’s revelations, a new insight into the different emotional life of men and women:
“I am homesick in this country, but I am thinking I would be homesick in my own country now, also … I have to pretend I am fine here … I have to pretend everything is … how you say? Hunkydory.”
Tyler has said she did not like The Taming of the Shrew when she first read it in college and it is a play that many readers have found misogynistic. Some modern critics have objected to Katharina’s final speech, arguing for obedience of wives to husbands. Others find it ironic. Tyler’s handling of the ending turns the story into a twenty-first century narrative. Kate’s final speech is not one of capitulation, but of awareness of her place in the world as a woman and Pyotr’s as a man: “It’s hard being a man … Anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it … They’re a whole lot less free than women are … I’m not backing down…..I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”
Tyler grew up in a male-dominated family ‑ “amazing grandfathers, father, brothers and husband” – and writes male characters well. She is attracted to the challenges posed by the fact that men “are almost forced by society to hide their feelings. When I’m writing from a man’s point of view, particularly if it is first-person, all of a sudden I’m aware of how confined I feel, how I can’t use that word because it is emotionally charged, too gushy. I feel I’m walking this narrow path with high walls on either side of me. The first time I realised I was so surprised, I thought, well here we are always worrying about women’s liberation, but how about men?”
In Tyler’s version, Kate’s speech is supportive of Pyotr and of husbands in general. In the end we see that Kate wants to marry for reasons of her own, not simply to save her father or to get Pyotr a green card. The novel shows a transformation in her character development, one that sees her becoming her own person. Becoming herself has been Kate’s journey throughout the novel, finding a room of her own. The theme of disguise and mistaken identity in both the Shakespeare and Vinegar Girl, point to this being a novel about identity, about honest character growth. At the start, she is anything but her own person, but by the epilogue we see that she has found her way in the world. Kate finally has a plan.
Brenna Katz Clarke is former head of English at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin.