Most of us know the gist of Shakespeare's play The Taming of the Shrew: A wealthy Italian man must marry off his older daughter, Katherine, who is sharp-tongued and surly, so that her younger sister can marry. A bachelor in need of money agrees to marry Katherine and, once they're wed, sets out to tame her shrewlike spirit.
Shakespeare's battle-of-the-sexes comedy has been updated before — most famously in the Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate and the 1999 teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You. Now novelist Anne Tyler has given the story a whirl: Her Vinegar Girl sets the Bard's combative comedy in 21st century Baltimore.
It's a risky text to update. The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, and it may be his most controversial; the play ends with Katherine's impassioned speech about the importance of a woman knowing her place. Tyler had to walk a fine line to make a modern-day version both convincing and palatable. But she has gracefully skirted the perils of Shakespearean sexism while pointing out the limitations that remain.
In Tyler's update, 29-year-old Kate Battista still lives at home, tending to her widowed father and her 15-year-old sister, Bunny.
Their eccentric and absent-minded father is a scientist who studies autoimmune disorders and believes he is on the verge of discovering something big. For three years he has relied on the help of his lab assistant, Pyotr, who hails from some Slavic country and deeply annoys Kate with his accent and his eagerness.
But now Pyotr's work visa is expiring. He needs a green card, and Kate's father has a plan: Since she's single with no prospects, why doesn't Kate marry Pyotr and help keep him in the country?
"You'll have to marry someone sooner or later, right?" Kate's father reasons. "And this is someone so exceptional, so gifted; it would be such a loss to mankind if he had to leave my project. And I like the fellow! He's a good fellow! I'm sure you'll come to feel the same way once you're better acquainted."
At first the suggestion seems ludicrous, but Kate begins to warm to the idea, if not to Pyotr. The marriage is just paperwork, she figures; it can be undone soon. And the union is a chance to shake up her life, to move out of the house — a chance she otherwise might not get.
Like Shakespeare's Katherine, Kate isn't a pushover. In fact, she's too outspoken to stay out of trouble at the preschool where she works; she's too honest with her 4-year-old charges. (When Emma G. asks who's the best artist in class and Kate replies, "I think probably Jason," the headmistress scolds her for making Emma G. feel inferior. "She is inferior," Kate replies. "Emma G. can't draw worth a damn. She asked my honest opinion and I gave her an honest answer.")
That said, Tyler's retelling strays significantly from the original. There's less taming in Tyler's novel. The mistreatment of Kate is generally unintentional, the product of Pyotr's cultural tin ear. In fact, Pyotr seems deeply amused by Kate's sharp tongue.
"In my country they have proverb," Pyotr tells Kate. "Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition."
Kate is surprised. "Well, in my country they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."
His reply: "But why would you want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl."
Vinegar Girl is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which has enlisted high-profile authors to reimagine Shakespeare's most famous plays. The series launched last fall with Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time, a retelling of The Winter's Tale.
Shrew is in capable hands. Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Breathing Lessons, and she has written more than a dozen books with quirky, contemporary female narrators.
At times, though, this story feels more like a stage production than a multilayered novel. Kate's a millennial, but she seems to have no friends, no social media accounts and no age-appropriate hobbies. Pyotr, meanwhile, spends his life in a lab. He's an orphan, but there's little mention of his childhood.
Only when Kate has agreed to the marriage do the characters begin to come alive. Once their fate is sealed, she and Pyotr exhibit a warmth and depth that helps Vinegar Girl stand on its own, even without the Shakespearean context.