Book Review of “Vinegar Girl” by Anne Tyler.
In Anne Tyler’s latest book, she takes on the task of modernizing Shakespeare’s play “The Taming of the Shrew.” To remind you, the original story is a simple one: Baptista has two beautiful daughters, the younger one is the sweet Bianca, and the older one is the hotheaded Katherine. Bianca is in love with Lucentio, but her father will not allow her to marry before her older sister Katherine. The problem is who would want to take on such a difficult woman as Katherine to be their wife? Enter Petruchio, who decides to take on the task of taming and wedding her, and so the comedy begins. (As an aside, I have to admit that the idea that someone would have to tame a woman to make her marriageable is hardly a feminist theme. However, the more you study the ending of his original play, you may find the Bard was actually suggesting that the “taming” wasn’t wholly one-sided – but that’s for another discussion altogether.)
There have been several attempts to modernize this play, but only two of them got any traction. One was the 1948 Samuel and Bella Spewack Broadway production with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, called “Kiss Me, Kate.” This musical used the original play as the background for a play-within-a-play, which has a similar, real-life problematic relationship between the leading actors. This was later adapted for the big screen in 1953 under the same name (with some amazing dance scenes staring the incomparable Bob Fosse). This version also included a sub-plot where Bianca’s love interest (both on and off stage) is less than reputable.
The second was the film “10 Things I Hate About You,” starring Julia Stiles as Kat (Katherine) and the late, great Heath Ledger in the Petruchio role, here renamed as Patrick Verona. (The TV series spin-off of this film only aired for one season, making it ultimately forgettable.) In this version, marriage isn’t the problem; rather, the sisters’ father won’t let the younger Bianca date until her older sister Kat is dating first. As absurd as this may seem, it actually works because of the well-written dialogue (in particular, the titular poem that Kat writes), and several excellent acting performances.
Tyler seems to have taken one or two pages from both these, while adding some bits of her own. In Tyler’s 21st century version, Kate (again) and Bunny’s (Ah!) father is Dr. Battista who is far more involved in his research project to pay much attention to his two girls, let alone be strict with them. While he doesn’t want Bunny dating or hanging around with boys unsupervised, that’s because she’s only 15. That has nothing to do with Kate’s social life or lack thereof, and Kate is the primary person enforcing this rule. The problem that needs solving in Tyler’s version is Dr. Battista’s; his research may finally be getting somewhere, but he desperately needs his foreign-born lab assistant Pyotr to achieve that long-illusive breakthrough. Unfortunately, Pyotr’s visa is about to run out. With possible deportation in the offing, the only quick-fix solution Battista can think of is to get Pyotr married to an American citizen, and Kate is his obvious choice.
What Tyler took from the musical was the sub-plot of the love interest for the younger daughter, and his less than honorable character. This worked well when Tyler matched it up with the no-dating rule from “10 Things.” Here Bunny’s “tutor” seems to be hanging around far more than needs be, but as suspicious as Kate is, she can’t fully object unless they meet behind her back. Tyler also successfully employed the contradictory aspects of the fathers from both versions, in that Battista is both strict in his household rules on the one hand, while at the same time, his overt self-absorption means he practically ignores both his daughters most of the time.
That aside, the most important element of any version of Shakespeare’s “Shrew” is the bit about taming this woman. For that to work properly, we need a character who is bluntly honest (even to the point of being rude), unapologetic regarding her actions and unmovable regarding what others may say or think about her. She also has to be independent to the point of selfishness, in that she wants nothing from anyone (and men in particular) whatsoever. However, underneath it all, just like every other human being, she has a heart; she simply needs the right someone to come along and unlock it.
And… here’s the rub! While Tyler succeeds with the latter, I’m afraid that she doesn’t quite make her Kate shrewish enough for us to believe she needs much in the way of taming. This leads to a bland conclusion to the novel, which I found disappointing and not as funny as I was hoping it would be. Tyler also added some extra, post-taming scenes that I found unnecessary, since I think the point she was trying to make with those parts should have come earlier in her story. Despite this, I still found this a fun read, mostly because I have always admired Tyler’s writing style, and I love her eye for finding the humor and absurdities in human nature. Unfortunately, as a re-imagining of this beloved Shakespeare play, for me it fell short, and I can only give it three and a half out of five stars. (Don’t worry, Anne – I forgive you, and I still love you!)
“Vinegar Girl” by Anne Tyler is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the website eBooks.com, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (promoting literacy, libraries and recycling) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.