Having heard Anne Tyler’s name for years, reading a selection from her prolific and successful oeuvre seemed overdue. Vinegar Girl, it turns out, was an excellent, not to mention entertaining, place to start.
Despite my research prior to choosing a title, it somehow escaped my notice–or I forgot–that Vinegar Girl is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” The choice seemed serendipitous, given my reading earlier this year of a modern rewrite of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (read the review of Jane of Austin here).
Updating “Shrew” poses a number of obstacles, beginning with the fact that arranged marriages are no longer common practice in America. But Tyler manages to posit a credible if uncommon premise. A laboratory scientist is about to lose his paragon of an assistant because the latter’s work visa is running out, three years after his arrival from Russia. Dr. Battista’s brilliant solution: convince his daughter, Kate, to marry his assistant, Pyotr. (Never mind the fact that marriage does not guarantee a visa these days.)
Perhaps the most obvious obstacle to modernization is the highly misogynistic age in which Shakespeare composed his comedy. Whatever we might think about gender inequality in the twenty-first century, it was vastly more pronounced in the sixteenth.
Despite the debate over Shakespeare’s actual position on women and their station, which dates almost to the play’s inception, it has persisted as a perennial favorite. Some modern stage presentations employ creative casting and costuming to highlight or introduce ambiguity. The more offensive passages are often played as ironic.
Tyler’s prose version of the story succeeds in giving us two sympathetic protagonists, while still harking back to the battle of the sexes in Shakespeare’s original. Circumstances abound for introducing humor. Tyler takes full advantage of the awkward nature of a marriage of convenience, missteps occasioned by cross-cultural interactions, the cluelessness of Kate’s scientist father, and her very typically teenage sister.
I won’t reveal whether Tyler changes the ending. The tone of the book promises a happily-ever-after. But the configuration of said resolution remained a mystery nearly to the end, thanks to Tyler’s clever management of plot and interpersonal tension.
Will Kate and Pyotr fall genuinely in love? Will Dr. Battista repent and arrive at an alternate solution? Or will an amicable divorce after Pyotr achieves citizenship pave the way for Kate to marry the sensitive but elusive Adam? Suffice to say we found the outcome both satisfying and heartwarming.