Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler’s opening line: “Kate Battista was gardening out back when she heard the telephone ring in the kitchen.”
My opening line: The third book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series is hilarious!
Last December when I took on the project to review each retelling for Litbreak, I was innocent but hopeful. I hoped I was old enough now to appreciate the Bard and tripped gaily into the series like a fairy from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I read a pastoral comedy with darker undertones, Winter’s Tale, a story of what jealousy can do to a marriage. The Gap of Time, a retelling by Jeannette Winterson ( sounds like a Shakespeare gag right there) rather stressed the darker undertones but was entertaining nonetheless. This March I read the controversial tragedy The Merchant of Venice, followed by Howard Jacobson’s retelling, Shylock is My Name, in which he took up for Shylock and gave Portia a minor position.
Now it is truly midsummer and I almost gave up the project as with pounding head and drooping eyelids, I read The Taming of the Shrew. If good old Will knew he would live on through his plays for centuries, it would seem he also knew that controversy makes for good box office receipts. Should a shrew be tamed? How is that best accomplished? Is a wife to be under the thumb of her husband or is that just pandering to the beliefs of early 17th century England’s Christian culture? Certainly the wooing of a fair maid or even a shrew is fraught for the man to this day. Think Meet the Parents. And just last year I read the 1957 Japanese classic The Makioka Sisters where daughters had to be married according to birth order.
I’m not even going to go into the slapstick that ensues from the play’s several sets of mistaken identities, another Shakespeare trope that he overdoes in this case to ridiculous proportions. Anne Tyler didn’t fall for that. Nor did she employ dowries or inheritance potential. Her shrew is aging out of the marriage market and working as a Teacher’s Assistant in a daycare center while being a surrogate mother for her annoying teenage sister. Her father is a mad scientist with no attention left over for the two daughters he is raising alone. And Petruchio, the shrew tamer? He is about to become an illegal alien as his work visa expires so the mad scientist comes up with a scheme to marry off Kate to Pyotr and prevent losing the best lab assistant he’s ever had. Did I mention that Pyotr is an orphan from an Eastern European country with an accent that the author makes LOL funny?
I have always enjoyed Anne Tyler’s wry humor even when it borders on slapstick. In Vinegar Girl she allows for just as much outrageous silliness as Shakespeare does with Pyotr showing up disheveled and late for the wedding ceremony and both of them neglecting to dress for the wedding banquet put on by the bride’s fastidious aunt. Best of all she places the reader squarely in Kate’s head and emotions. Riding along on the seesaw of her thoughts and feelings the reader is shown, as I feel Shakespeare failed to do, her evolving love for Pyotr. The vinegar girl thinks she is getting out of her menial position in her father’s house, supposes she will be able to find out who she is, and finds herself in the best life she could have imagined.
Tamed she is not. Tyler rewrites Katherine’s speech at the end of the play. (Jacobson rewrote Portia’s speech too. Hm.) She preserves Shakespeare’s idea that the two have met their match but instead of becoming tamed she gains insight. To cap it off, Tyler gives us a funny but touching Epilogue. I can see this novel as a movie with a laugh a minute. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton will have to step aside. This is 2016.
Check back in October for Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest.
Judy Krueger has been reviewing books since 2009. She also runs a literary blog http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com. She is a member of at least 5 reading groups and reads 7 to 10 books a month. Every now and then, she works on the autobiography of her life as a reader or on her novel in progress. You can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JudyJudykrueger.